Beth Chappell – A Volunteer Counsellor’s Perspective

Having retired from the NHS as a mental health nurse and counsellor, I was looking for something useful and interesting to do where I could use my skills. I first came across Solace at a conference. I had never worked with asylum seekers and refugees before and thought it would be an interesting challenge for me, which fitted in with my growing awareness of the problems facing asylum seekers in Leeds.
Despite working in mental health for over 30 years, I was shocked by the traumatic experiences that I heard about when I started working at Solace 18 months ago. Compared to conventional counselling, it is impossible to stick to the usual boundaries. In addition to helping clients manage their severe distress,
I can also be involved in sorting out a practical problem, whether it is making a phone call to a solicitor or finding an emergency dentist. On one occasion, I went out with a penniless client (struggling to live on £35 of vouchers a week) to buy a saucepan.

Hearing the accounts from asylum seekers and refugees of what forced them to leave their home countries is shocking. The vivid descriptions of some of their journeys to Britain are staggering. But in some ways the most shocking thing of all is hearing what they experience in Britain; at times I have felt ashamed to be British.
It has been a challenge working with asylum seekers, particularly during my initial weeks at Solace. The support I have received from Anne, the Senior Therapist, has been invaluable: supervision is essential in this type of work and being able to share the burden enables me to cope with it.

It might be difficult to imagine how we, as counsellors, can help people who have faced, and continue to face, such horrendous difficulties. Many asylum seekers are totally isolated because they cannot speak English, or they are too depressed to mix with other people or too poor to go out. Many live in miserable housing conditions, sometimes sharing with people who do not speak the same language. Some people they come into contact with are officious; others callous.
For an asylum seeker or refugee, being able to talk to a counsellor who can listen to them and take an interest in their life is incredibly valuable. Coming to Solace and being made to feel welcome in a nice, clean, comfortable place helps too.
Grief is a major issue for asylum seekers. I do a lot of work around grieving the loss of their home and family, as well as helping them deal with the uncertainty and fear about what the future holds. Enabling them to grieve helps them move on. However, asylum seekers are often in limbo, with a very uncertain future, which limits the potential for moving forward emotionally. In this situation, my role is to help them keep their lives together.

It is a privilege to work with people from different cultures and I feel it is something really worthwhile and humbling. Making a deep personal connection with someone from a completely different culture is an experience I value greatly and I like to think that this works both ways.