What I do for a living – A Befriending Co-ordinator

Malte Gembus is the Mentoring and Befriending Co-ordinator at The Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE).

Whenever I’m being asked what I do for a living, I usually take a long breath because I know I’m in for a long haul. I usually try to sum it up with something along the lines of “I work with young refugees and asylum-seekers”.  “Oh so you’re a social worker” is a common question that comes up at this point, which I have to decline as politely as possible. “Oh I get it!! You are a teacher!”  Again I have to tell my counterpart that I am not really but that I work with many of them. “So what is it that you actually do then?”

“I help people make friends”, which sounds quite brief and also a bit like I work in a dating agency.

“I match up befriender volunteers with young refugees and asylum seekers in order for them to develop a supportive relationship based on mutual trust.” Wow, I hope so!

As you can see I struggle to find the right words to describe what JUMP – JCORE’s Unaccompanied Minors Project – is and what this project does to help and support young people. While we could see this as something problematic it actually points to something very special about this project.

The project really starts with the young people who come here without their families to seek protection from persecution in their home country. The scheme is as diverse and multi-facetted as these young people who take part and the stories they have to tell. It is their needs, interests and personalities that drive this project and decide what my job looks like every day. There is no one simple answer to the many problems young people in this difficult situation face, be it at school learning a language from scratch, with the local authorities while working your way through a bureaucratic jungle that is almost impossible for even those who have lived their life here to understand. Be it with the Home Office and the constant uncertainty of whether one will be allowed to stay or not, or be it everyday problems that every teenager has with peers, friends and others.

Each of our young people has their own baggage to carry and his/her own issues that sometimes don’t let them sleep at night. This is why building a positive relationship with somebody is a great way to really find out what a young person needs and wants.

The latter is of great importance here. Young people who come to the UK to claim asylum face a system that is full of practical issues which complicate their lives. There is another aspect however that is equally important: Many of our young people lose the feeling of being able to control their own lives and what happens within it.

Imagine you have to make appointments with professionals for almost every aspect of your life, even for the little things. Imagine institutions rather than people make basic decisions about where you live, who you live with and how long you will be able to stay. This is the world that many of the young people involved in JUMP experience, and it leaves many of them with the feeling that their life is being controlled by an abstract and obscure system represented by anonymous people sitting in offices making arbitrary and unfair decisions.

This is where JUMP as a befriending project is trying to make a difference, by asking young people “What do you want to do?” This is a question that many of them have not heard in a long time, as many of their decisions are made for them. It is these little things such as somebody calling you to see if you are doing ok or to invite you to spend time together that have the potential to give back a bit of the dignity, respect and agency that some youngsters have lost somewhere along their journey. It is about interacting as human beings and not as “refugees” or “asylum-seekers”. It is about recognizing that there is a person behind these labels with a unique story and a unique personality. This is what JUMP does and how it supports young people, by engaging with them and finding out who they are and what they want rather than treating them like numbers to count or cases to deal with.

Maybe I should say that the next time somebody asks me “What do you do for a living?”.

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