A story of resilience and adaptability: Community Sponsorship during the COVID-19 pandemic

Author: Marisol Reyes, IRiS Research Associate

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our daily lives in many ways, with global and local inequalities evident in terms of infection and mortality rates and socio-economic impacts.  Refugees are recognised to be a vulnerable population with a recent study by the World Health Organisation finding significant impact of COVID-19 on refugees’ mental and physical health with greater levels of depression, fear, anxiety and loneliness reported.  How has the pandemic played out for the UK’s Community Sponsorship refugees?  After four years researching the UK Community Sponsorship Scheme, I am convinced that one of the most powerful qualities of this model is the personalised support that their skilful and well-connected volunteers deliver to refugee families. Their ability to connect with friendship, trust and respect is a kind of hospitality that makes a huge difference for the wellbeing of both volunteers and refugees and has been critical during the pandemic.

From January to March 2021, I interviewed volunteers from 21 Community Sponsorship groups to investigate the ways in which they have adapted their work supporting refugee families under pandemic conditions. Without a doubt the social restrictions and associated lockdowns posed significant challenges, disrupting the interpersonal interaction between volunteers and refugees. Under the new circumstances, the volunteers were forced to move all of their support online and find new ways to continue with their planned programmes, while the refugees had rapidly to adapt to the digital era for accessing services and maintaining communication. I identified at least two areas of support that have been instrumental for maintaining the viability of the community sponsorship scheme during the pandemic. They are assistance with digital skills, and attention to refugees’ wellbeing.

Helping to cross the digital divide

During the pandemic, the internet become the gateway for facilitating communication and accessing many essential services in the UK, such as e-health consultations, virtual education platforms, digital cash transfers, and e-payment systems. To help refugees to cross the digital divide, volunteers had to supply their households with adequate hardware and ensure they had access to the internet through broadband or mobile data. Although the majority of refugees are savvy mobile users, some lacked digital skills and had to learn from scratch important actions such as setting up an email account, using search engines, or familiarising themselves with Word documents.

Newcomer refugees who have been living in the UK for less than 24 months experienced more difficulty adapting to the digital era. The majority were still in the process of developing their language proficiency and most of the information and available resources was in English. In those cases, volunteers identified creative ways to teach them to perform basic tasks on a computer. They introduced visual methods that included assistance with guided screenshots or recording videos with Arabic subtitles. Some volunteers learned to use communications apps in Arabic and in emergencies they found interpreters who were connected by videoconferencing applications.

Refugees had to adjust quickly to the proliferation of new technologies to access services and communicate efficiently. Some volunteers though these needs accelerated refugees’ path to independence and empowerment as they learnt to do many things by themselves. For example, they were trained to use e-health platforms for receiving virtual medical consultations, they became familiar with applications for redeeming e-food vouchers for their children and they learnt to pay for services and utilities online. In some cases, the use of online support and services saved money for groups and refugees who lived in remote locations. 

Support for wellbeing

One of the main concerns of the Community Sponsorship volunteers during the pandemic has been the physical and mental health of their sponsored families. Many groups identified activities to help refugees with fitness and invited them for walks or cycle rides, while other groups supported them to try new hobbies like gardening and birdwatching. Refugee women tended to be more hesitant about joining social activities and appeared to be more isolation than the rest of the family. In those cases, volunteers identified online activities that helped them to connect with women-only social groups. These included virtual art and craft workshops, cookery demonstrations and language groups that enabled them to engage in conversations and expand their friendship groups.

The new demands and changes caused by the pandemic also impacted the internal dynamics of volunteer group membership. Many of the most regular participants gave up volunteering either because they were in at-risk groups or because they had to attend to the needs of their own families. Project leaders in the groups had to be mindful about the increase of responsibilities and workload for remaining group members to try avoiding burnout and ensure they looked after their own wellbeing. Some volunteers who experienced isolation during lockdown found purpose in attending online meetings and keeping connected with the friends they made in the sponsorship groups.

The Community Sponsorship post-pandemic

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has been a big test of the resilience and adaptability of the Community Sponsorship Scheme. Many groups had to reinvent themselves with resourcefulness and flexibility. Despite all the difficulties experienced during these times, in different ways the groups interviewed managed to tackle the challenges posed by pandemic conditions and the impossibility of delivering the in-person support which is at the heart of the sponsorship model. Many volunteers developed their digital skills and identified new methods and resources to improve resettlement activities, such as remote education or virtual training. In the future some groups plan to adopt hybrid models combining personalised support with digital tools. The pandemic has made more evident the urgent need to close the digital divide.  Acquiring digital skills is clearly an important component of refugee integration processes which demands further attention from a wide range of stakeholders.

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