Supporting refugees and asylum seekers in Chichester

June 2024

Our mental health worker, Lidiia, works in partnership with Sanctuary in Chichester to support refugees and asylum seekers trying to make a life here. Many are grappling with trauma from the lives they left behind, but they also face ongoing uncertainty and insecurity once they are safe

West Sussex Mind and Sanctuary in Chichester have been working together since October 2023 to provide mental health support to asylum seekers, refugees and Sanctuary’s volunteers. Since then, our refugee support worker, Lidiia has held 113 individual support sessions with people from 21 countries, including Afghanistan, Albania, Colombia, Angola, India and El Salvador.

Lidiia attends Sanctuary’s weekly drop-in at St Paul’s Church in Chichester and does weekly sessions for refugees and asylum seekers at Park Hotel, as well as supporting Sanctuary's women’s group once a month.

While the partnership began with Lidiia attending existing Sanctuary groups and raising awareness to open up conversations about mental health, it has evolved to focus more on one-to-one support. “When I started this work, I thought that I would run groups, but I’ve learned that refugees and asylum seekers aren’t ready to share their problems, fears and emotions in a group setting. The hotel residents, in particular, aren’t ready to share and don’t want to make friends, because they know that they can be told at any time that they are leaving. So the individual appointments are much more helpful for them, with people booking sessions for two or three weeks in advance.”

Having Lidiia available at the hotel and at the weekly drop-in means that people can self-identify for the support they want when they need it, giving them both dignity and independence.

The value of lived experience

Lidiia has her own lived experience of being a refugee, as she fled the Russian war in Ukraine in June 2022 to come to the UK with her family. She now brings that experience to bear in her work, demonstrating empathy and understanding for those she supports.

“I understand the difficulties refugees face in managing paperwork, trying to settle children and finding voluntary or paid work. So I can use my experience of navigating life here to build trust with the refugees I’m helping and share my own experience,” she says.

Trauma from past lives

The challenges faced by the refugees and asylum seekers Lidiia supports are many and varied, but there are some common threads. There are many men, who were politically active in their country of origin, and had to flee to keep themselves and their families safe. Although culturally it can be difficult for them to ask for help with their mental health, Lidiia supports several men who are grappling with trauma from the life they left behind, as well as the challenges of trying to make a new life in the UK.

Our refugee support worker Lidiia with a volunteer from Sanctuary in Chichester at a drop in for refugees

Lidiia with Claudie from Sanctuary in Chichester, attending a drop-in for refugees and asylum seekers at St Paul's Church

There are also many women who have escaped domestic abuse in their country of origin, fearing for their lives and those of their children, and they continue to struggle with this trauma. Lidiia emphasises that the journey itself to the UK was traumatic for some and cites the Albanians she has supported, for whom the traumatic journey by boat was almost worse than the situation they were fleeing in Albania. “The memory of being out in the open ocean among huge waves that almost capsized their boat and the immense fear they felt for their family’s safety is extremely vivid and remains a source of trauma,” says Lidiia.

Ongoing uncertainty

Many of the refugees and asylum seekers hoped that life would be better when they came to the UK, but their lives remain extremely challenging and insecure. Lydia explains: “There are ongoing challenges around Home Office interviews, job interviews, settling children in, being able to cook their own food – not to mention the ongoing uncertainty about where they are going to live and being told at any time that they are leaving and moving to a different place with just a few hours’ notice. It is very hard for them to settle and find routine to build a new life.”

Lidiia finds her work with refugees and asylum seekers incredibly rewarding and she also supports Sanctuary’s volunteers – not only to help them understand the challenges refugees face using her lived experience, but to help them take care of themselves, so that they can help others and prevent emotional burnout.

The partnership has been successful so far: it has had a positive impact on the well-being of Chichester's refugees and asylum seekers and brought valuable learning to both Sanctuary and West Sussex Mind. Indeed what began as a pilot project between the two organisations is set to develop into a longer term programme.

Certainly there is a significant need for ongoing support, as Lidiia reflects: “It is a long and difficult journey for refugees and asylum seekers to survive and make a life here, even if they are finally safe.”