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Working with sanctuary seekers

As a Theatre of Sanctuary, Opera North is always looking for new ways to engage with refugees and asylum seekers. This year, the company has chosen PAFRAS to be one of its Encore Plus Partners, recognising the valuable services it offers asylum seekers and people whose applications have been rejected.

We spoke to Sharon Browne, Mental Health Support Worker at PAFRAS (Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers), about the charity and the help it offers to some of the most vulnerable people in Leeds.

What services does PAFRAS offer?

“We hold a drop-in service each week for people seeking asylum who are accommodated in the city. In the main, people attend the drop-in to meet with their caseworkers and the mental health team, but there is also a small social space where people can meet to talk, have a hot drink and something to eat, and we also give out food parcels and toiletries.

“In addition, we have the Young Migrants Matter project, a service dedicated to young unaccompanied adults aged 18-24 years, and Refugee Family Reunion, for those who have been granted asylum and who seek to be reunited with close family members and loved ones left behind. We run our World Café for younger asylum seekers, and our in-house Domestic Violence worker supports those within the asylum system who have been subject to violence in a domestic setting.”

Enjoying an Opera North event at PAFRAS © Tom Arber

How many people would you deal with on an average week?

“Each week, we can have up to 80 people attending for one or more services within the drop-in. We also see clients in the office during the week and we do some outreach work which reaches perhaps another 20-30 people.”

What is the greatest need?

“Most people are looking for information, help and advice regarding their asylum claim. The mental health and wellbeing support is important, and people often need social and educational support, such as accessing services, colleges and healthcare.”

PAFRAS is 20 years old; what has changed over that time?

“I’ve been at the charity for around two and a half years, so can only really talk about more recent changes. Obviously, the countries where people are travelling from changes depending on where there is conflict in the world, and the prevailing immigration and asylum environment also has an effect.”

Nick Watts from the Chorus of Opera North chats to children at PAFRAS © Tom Arber

What difference did Covid make?

“Covid had a huge impact on people accessing our services and the quality of asylum seekers’ lives. People seeking asylum often have no easy access to green spaces and no money for IT or Wi-Fi to help with study or entertainment, which is particularly hard for the young and for families with school-age children. Added to that are the challenges for many of living in a shared house where no-one speaks the same language – and the often very poor condition of the accommodation where they are staying.”

Why do you think the arts are important for displaced people?

“The arts are really important to our clients. For some, it’s a chance to revisit interests they’ve had in the past and miss dearly; for others, it’s an opportunity to begin an interest in something new and exciting. For everyone, it takes them away from their everyday life into a different world, adding a richness to their life and conversation.

“Many simply want to get involved in something outside the day-to-day grind of being in the slow and very cumbersome asylum system – a reminder that there is more to their life than seeking asylum.”

Men of the Chorus of Opera North hold a special performance for PAFRAS © Tom Arber

Why are you looking forward to being an Encore Plus Partner?

“Our client group has such limited access to music and culture. Lack of funds plays its part (bus fares alone can be a real barrier), but also people don’t know whether they will be welcome, included or even allowed in particular spaces. They can often feel uncomfortable and shy in unfamiliar places outside of their home and college. Being acknowledged in this way takes away that fear.

“Of the events we have experienced with Opera North so far, all have had such wonderful feedback. A small group came to a film screening at the Howard Assembly Room, the Men from the Chorus came to sing at our drop-in, and two families have joined the parent and toddler music sessions. All have been loved by those involved. It’s a small start but I’m looking forward to expanding the events our clients get involved in over the year.”

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