START Walking Project: Students and Refugees Together (START)

START is a small Plymouth based charity that helps people, forcibly dispersed by the immigration system and who have been granted ‘leave to remain’, to build a full life in the city. START’s work enables new arrivals to understand administration, acquire accommodation, access education, prepare for and find work, learn English and socialise in the wider community. Refugees need support to achieve their goals and make the transition from people in need to contributors to their new communities. START provides a range of support activities that are holistic and inclusive that offer:

  • Services in response to carefully assessed needs: individual and family casework and a range of community activities designed to reduce social isolation, promote healthy living, create volunteering opportunities and aid resettlement.
  • Advocacy that enables refugees to navigate administrative challenges and access their rights, and to foster fair treatment and social justice for refugees.

The START community activities provide the spaces and opportunities for refugees to socialise and meet new people. The emphasis is on developing a sense of belonging. Taking part allows the hardships in people’s lives to melt away for a few moments as the pleasure in communal cooking, speaking freely in their first-language, breathing fresh air, feeling the soil on their hands, walking in the sunshine (hopefully!) or making something creative, lets them feel fully human again.

The grant award to START by the trust enabled us to afford three walks as part of our STARTwalking programme. STARTwalking started in 2012, the premise is simple; we arrange a walking route in the countryside surrounding Plymouth. The activity involves travelling together to start the walk, walking the route together, eating a communal lunch together and then returning to the city together using public transport. The annual programme of walks has been consistently enjoyed by everyone, refugees, students, volunteers and local people, who together benefit from fresh air and exercise, cultural exchange, language practice and the joy of breaking out of the confines of the city. Over 110 participants took part this year.

One walk coincided with Plymouth’s refugee week celebrations. The route was a walk from the city centre to the beach using the south west coastal path. On this occasion thirty-five people took part. Two refugee women joined the group, both were keen as it was their first time. For them, the activity represented doing something healthy with a group of friendly people and going somewhere out of the ordinary. One of them reported that they would have spent the day inside at home – this was much better! In true communal spirit they brought delicious middle eastern delicacies to share as their contribution to the lunch. Feedback gathered shows how important these interactions are, as one START volunteer says:

“I was first a bit nervous of these situations, for it can also be difficult when the language is still difficult, and I didn’t know the Service Users that good. But then, when I had to do it, I realized how good it can be to be in movement, to walk together somewhere and not to sit at a table face to face. It makes a more relaxed atmosphere and people start talking to me in a very different way, about different things and that really changes the relationship in a positive way”

It is with true gratitude to the generosity of the Edith M Ellis 1985 Trust, who through their support have enabled us to continue to provide this kind of activities for the refugee communities in Plymouth.

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