A year in the life of a Foodbank Volunteer – what I have learned

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Just over a year ago, in December 2017, after taking early retirement, I started volunteering at a foodbank run by a charity called Micah Liverpool. It’s a joint venture between the city’s Anglican and Roman Catholic Cathedrals and St Bride’s Church. Over 12,000 emergency food parcels are given out by Micah each year.  One of Micah’s food banks is in Liverpool 8, where many of the city’s asylum seekers are accommodated so the food bank deals with guests from various countries. I decided to write a reflection of some of my experiences during the past year – some light-hearted and some more serious.

Why three selection boxes are worth a million dollars

Having started just before Christmas, every guest was given a chocolate selection box. A young child was given charge of the three selection boxes for her family. She was absolutely THRILLED, reacting as if she had been given a gift of much greater value. It put into perspective my usual expectations and pre-occupations at Christmas.

 

What food can you eat with no gas or electricity?

From time to time, the foodbank deals with guests who have no access to gas or electricity. It proved VERY difficult to provide a satisfying, balanced diet in these cases. Long-life milk, cereal, fresh fruit, tinned fruit, tinned corned beef, biscuits, bread and jam are the best we could do. Given the fact that it was winter, the lack of hot food is just another unmet need.

 

Would you spend half a day’s income on a greetings card?

Two former guests, asylum seekers, popped in to give the volunteers a “Thank You” card (they had each written one). They were lovely cards, and the former guests wanted to thank us for the food, signposting and our “kindness”. They probably cost about £2.50 each. Asylum seekers are given around £5 a day to live on so the thought that they were willing to spend a half a day’s income (when they could have just said a thank you) was VERY humbling. In their position, I honestly think that if I made the effort to go and say thank you, I would feel I had done enough, without eating into my limited income.

 

How does Pam (a volunteer) reduce people to tears?

One day during the distribution of the emergency food parcels, a woman was in tears. Concerned about what had prompted that, Pam went to comfort the lady. It transpired that she wasn’t upset; she was overwhelmed at the food and the warmth shown to her. Minutes later, Pam was dealing with a young asylum seeker from Iran. On hearing that he was from Tehran, she said what a beautiful city it was, but with its problems. This opened the floodgates for him and he too was crying. Pam’s openness and warmth seems to evoke that response from time to time!

What I learned about the world

Syria, Afghanistan, Somali, Nigeria, Iraq, Sudan, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iran are the countries I have seen represented most at the food bank. Why those countries? Their citizens suffer from the effects of war or military conflicts; unstable political regimes; gross human rights violations; compulsory conscription (indefinite in the case of Eritrea); persecution, imprisonment, torture or even the death penalty for being gay or for not following the dominant religion (including converting to another).

I have also picked up some isolated random facts: Eritreans and Ethiopians (including Christians) don’t eat pork.
Iranians speak Farsi and most Eritreans speak Tigrinya
Translate is a Godsend when presented with someone who speaks only Russian or Bengali or Albanian – none of our volunteers speak those languages though between us we can cope with Farsi, Arabic, Kurdish, French, Spanish, Tigrinya, Amharic and Greek.

                                                   

Why we are dealing with the effects of more benefit delays

Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Jobseeker’s Allowance (two of the commonest benefits) are paid every two weeks. With the introduction of Universal Credit, this has changed. A claim for Universal Credit will not be paid for the first seven days (known as waiting days). As payment is now monthly in arrears, it can take up to six weeks after a claim for the first payment to reach the account. Additionally, further delays to processing Universal Credit have been widely experienced. This explains the number of new guests we have seen since Universal Credit was rolled out here in Liverpool. The switch to Universal Credit has caused real problems for many claimants.

 

Where or who is Kuwait-Bidoun?

I have dealt with a number of guests whose papers have stated their country of origin as Kuwait-Bidoun. I had obviously heard of Kuwait, but not Kuwait-Bidoun, I discovered that there are over 100,000 people in Kuwait (descendants of the Bedouin) who are vulnerable and without protection. Kuwait considers them “illegal residents” in contravention of International Law to protect indigenous peoples, denying them essential documentation, including birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as access to free government schools and legal employment opportunities. Their name comes from the Arabic phrase “bidun jinsiya” or “without nationality” — they do not have citizenship and are rendered stateless. According to the UNHCR there are at least 10million stateless people globally. Over 20 countries have reported more than 10,000 stateless people including Kuwait.

Why were fisty-cuffs a source of joy?

One day, two charming 3 year old girls came into the foodbank. They were obviously friends. They were asylum seekers from a war-torn African country.   A few minutes later they were toe to toe, pushing and shouting at each other. Shouts of “you pushed me first!” and “you called me names!” were heard as neither would back down. It was like a pre-match confrontation between boxers. Most parents are concerned that their daughters might be seen as a “pushover”. Given their backgrounds perhaps that fear would be even more understandable but their altercation proved that no-one was going to push either of them around!

 

Final Reflections

The hardship that people trying to negotiate the benefits system, in particular the introduction of Universal Credit, has been an ever-present theme over the last 12 months.

I have been struck by the nobility and humanity of the asylum seekers and saddened by the waste of skills and experience they bring as engineers (chemical and civil), journalists, humanitarian aid workers and translators.

After a year of volunteering at the foodbank, I have found it to be hugely rewarding experience. I have been hugely impressed by the band of volunteers. They are friendly, open-hearted; they are mostly people of faith – Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Muslims – with others of no stated religious affiliation. They cover many nationalities and are aged 18 to 80+. I hope to be involved in this work for many more years to come.

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