The refugees and asylum seekers housed in Thatcham are looking for ways to give back to the local community. They have been keen to find volunteering opportunities while they wait for the Home Office to process their applications for asylum. The arrivals, which include doctors and teachers, are unable to work while their applications are pending, so they have formed a volunteer group to make a practical contribution to the town.
The leader of the group is Bahman from Iran who was forced to leave his country, his wife, daughter, and son, and flee because of the Iranian regime.
Bahman is a primary school teacher and had been teaching in Iran for 24 years. “I love the environment, school children and teaching.” he explains. “This idea was in my mind from the first days of being in Thatcham but honestly, I thought that no one would cooperate with me. But two weeks ago, I decided that even if I am alone I have to start and with the help of dear Karen from West Berkshire Action for Refugees I am delighted that the community is supportive.”
The environmental group is called VIAN which is the name of Bahman’s daughter and is a Kurdish word that means “love”.
The group has two general goals: the main one is to clean Thatcham town and protect its environment; the second is to educate the refugees living in Thatcham and all the people around it, to fully support the environment and keep it clean.
Bahman recently presented their ideas to Thatcham Town Council and asked for guidance on where and when they can be most effective in cleaning up the town and also provision of rubbish bags, gloves and sanitation materials required for the job.
Their first joint project was tidying up after the Christmas lights switch-on event in the town centre.
In the summer a similar group helped with car parking at the Thatcham Family Fun Day. The Mayor of Thatcham, Jeff Brooks, was very grateful for their help and delighted to present certificates of thanks to them.
He heard their stories about the challenging countries that they come from and made them feel welcome in the Council Chamber.
Earlier this summer and autumn group also helped the Canal & Rivers Trust maintain the local canals in Newbury.
The volunteer team leader from the CRT, Roger Jones, said “the Newbury CRT team is the first to have asylum seekers working alongside their regular volunteers. Amongst the tasks they have completed: are sanding down the footbridge, painting the locks, and reinstating an eroded riverbank.
“The scheme has proved to be so successful that CRT is looking to recruit ssylum seekers in other parts of the country to join volunteer groups. The volunteers have been really keen asking if they can go out more often than the regular sessions that take place once a month. It is clear that the volunteering has been a huge benefit as they always end the day with such smiles on their faces. It has been great to see their English improve.”
Volunteer team leader from the CRT, Matt Hudson said “it was lovely to see the asylum seekers come and join in with the work of the group over the summer and autumn. Mixing regularly in the group has helped the asylum seekers improve their English.
“Despite initial reservations that language could be a barrier, their willingness to work and their enthusiasm has overcome the obstacles. Working closely together we can see that we are all human beings and we need to look after each other. Meeting these volunteers has shown us that we have more in common rather than how different we are. “