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Sarah Wong is a medical student, who is intercalating in Medical Anthropology, and volunteers as a Mentor at the Refugee Therapy Centre in Holloway. She came into the Volunteering Services office, and was interviewed by Jenny Murphy and Nick Batley about this amazing role, volunteering with refugees.

To get us started, tell us a little about your volunteering. What kind of things did you do, how long did you do them for, and how often did you do them?

I’m currently a student mentor, and my role is to meet with 1-3 clients a week and spend an hour-long session with each of them. Depending on their age, stage in life, needs and what they’re going through, I might choose to teach them skills in English and Math, or just have a chat about what’s going on at home or in school. It’s really up to you what you want to do as a mentor, as to what you see fit.

What inspired you to get involved in the project?

I’m doing a year in medical anthropology and I’m really interested in cross-cultural psychiatry and psychology. Being an international student myself, coming to London was quite an experience. In the past, reading about the refugee crisis in the papers I’ve always felt quite distant and sort of removed from the whole situation. But I think I just began to realise that here in London we’re at the forefront of this crisis; it’s just at our doorstep. When I look at volunteering, it’s just a short-term thing and while I know not going to be able to do much, I really felt that I wanted to be involved in a role that I could envisage myself doing in the long term - something I was passionate about, and had the time to do this year.

Based on what you were saying in clinical psychiatry that you’ll be able to into your medical degree?

The first two/three years of medicine you’re mainly studying theory and abstract notions of cultural competency, but I think my experience volunteering has been sort of eye-opening in the way that through my mentees, I’ve seen parts of London that I’ve never experienced and have never have been exposed to. In the hospitals and clinics it’s often really rushed, so we don’t have that time to spend with each and every patient. The mentoring session at the Refuge Therapy Centre is a whole hour of sitting down and taking the time to get to know someone - I think this has given me deeper insight into the kinds of struggles that refugees, people who move here from a foreign culture may experience.

Alternatively, what do you think the biggest challenges were for you in this role and how do you feel about them now?

One thing as a mentor that is a bit difficult is that some of the children we work with have additional needs to take into consideration – some have intellectual disabilities like forms of autism, and learning disabilities like dyslexia and others.  So I think my conflict is trying to balance giving them encouragement and hope and a feeling like ‘you can do this, you can do whatever you want’, and trying to teach them skills that are sustainable and help them to be resilient in later life against future challenges. At the start, it’s so tempting to be super hopeful, because they’ve been through so much discouragement in their lives and I guess it’s finding a way to be encouraging while being aware that there are particular issues and barriers they have to consider and overcome when taking on a job or an opportunity later in life.

Another thing is trying to ensure that while I may love building relationships with the clients, I have to be sure that they don’t become too attached to me and I don’t speak in a way to make them think I’ll be there forever. We have to be careful to help them build friendships with other people even when it’s a challenge for them, and make sure that they’ve not become too dependent on the centre.

Would you recommend this opportunity to others?

Definitely – I think one thing about this centre and working with this population group – sometimes you turn up and then they aren’t there, or they miss an appointment because of issues in communication or unexpected events – I think that may deter some people from working with refugees, but that it’s part of the experience of dealing with people across a cultural barrier. I think it’s really good exposure – it’s such a good opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds and really learn how to appreciate the things we take for granted, to gain insight into things that usually escape us. Because clients may feel awkward in the culture here, especially if they’re shy or introverted, they tend to be misunderstood a lot because of the way they express themselves and this may give rise to some of the negative stereotypes surrounding their backgrounds. Taking time to understand their situation and finding ways to relate to them has been a learning experience for me, and really rewarding.

If Sarah’s experience has inspired you to get involved, check out the Refugee Therapy Centre’s opportunities! Or if something else strikes your fancy, please visit our online directory to view all the current roles we have on offer with our 400+ London-based partners!