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Experts by Experience speak out at a UK Migrant Health Conference in the University of East Anglia (UEA)

“No decision about me, without me” is an admirable slogan of the NHS but does it apply to asylum seekers and refugees? Often their voice is not heard but it was at the UK Migrant Health conference at UEA in May 2016.

Fleeing persecution and seeking asylum causes stress and anxiety and is bound to impact on a person’s health. Being strangers in a foreign land, sanctuary seekers need help to access healthcare. They don’t know what they are entitled to, whether they will have to pay for care or who they can trust. They may be fearful to ask for help, to open up and to feedback their experience of health care in the UK.

IMG_2999In both the Health and Maternity Streams of Sanctuary we provide a forum for sanctuary seekers to share their experience, attend training on public speaking and together we provide awareness raising sessions to health professionals. Sophie North, a doctor and lecturer at UEA asked City of Sanctuary if any sanctuary seekers would be willing to speak  at a Migrant Health Conference she was organising and we had no problem finding three willing volunteers. They joined four other sanctuary seekers, their support workers, Sophie and her husband Ben for a short break at the Grange to prepare for the conference. The Grange is an incredible place to stay. It is Ben and Sophie’s home and they welcome asylum seekers and refugees with open arms. They encourage people to feel at home, to relax and to find sanctuary. IMG_3032They were given a “Home of Sanctuary Award” by the City of Sanctuary last year and it was a pleasure to experience their hospitality. Providing a safe environment enabled the sanctuary seekers to open up, to share their experiences, to decide what health issues they would focus on and to practice their presentations.

At the conference the sanctuary seekers bravely shared their stories and stole the show! Three “Experts by Experience” including two from the City of Sanctuary were key note speakers and they spoke with such confidence and passion that the audience was transfixedimage. One mum spoke about growing up believing you should keep your problems to yourself and not share them with health professionals. A belief she held even though her family have faced major health issues during the 17 years they have been seeking sanctuary. She then said that through the City of Sanctuary she had found a new family and that as her daughter said “family is thicker then blood” and she’d learnt it was better to speak out and help each other. She now gives awareness raising talks to health professionals and she and 24 other women are User Representatives at Bradford Facility of Health and are involved in the recruitment, teaching, assessment and research at Bradford University. Through the City of Sanctuary she and 10 other women have joined a Hidden Talents project and got a place to start an apprenticeship to be a clinical support worker so her ambition to be a nurse might become a reality. 17 years seeking sanctuary has been tough but she can now see a light at the end of the tunnel. Another woman talked about FGM and the impact on women on finding it was not acceptable in the UK, the shame they felt, their need for interpreters who were not family members and support to understand what had happened to them and what they could do about it. Another mum shared her story of fleeing her country, seeking asylum and the impact this had had on her health and where she found help. The women were not blaming anyone but were sharing their stories in the hope that understanding will grow and better solutions and approaches will be found.

IMG_3055Workshops were held on many health issues such as supporting survivors of torture or human trafficking, child health and mental health, working across languages, sexual health and maternity. The most popular workshop however was ours, entitled “No decision about me, without me – stories from experts by experience.”  The workshop was so popular we ran out of room. Everyone was in a large circle and the stories and discussion afterwards were inspirational. Thanks to the day of preparation, the speakers knew what they wanted to say and we created a logical order. The aim was to give an insight into experiences and barriers. One person explained why he had problems trusting people. He said the only trust that survived was trust in myself because I am a survivor” .He said he feared a GP would report him to the Home Office so didn’t register for 8 years. When he did, she took time to listen to him, looked at him instead of her computer and said “I am sorry I can’t take all your pain away”. He could see tears in her eyes and her compassion meant the world to him.
Another man described tying to cope with insomnia, being prescribed sleeping tablets and that they didn’t help. He stayed at the Grange and thanks to the peace and quiet there rediscovered his writing skills. He said “ I found the Grange was my medicine. Thank you GP but you have lost one customer. A volunteer from City of Sanctuary talked about problems registering with a GP and at her first appointment she was told You don’t look like an asylum seeker”. She talked about the label, asylum seeker, how being refused asylum nearly sent her over the edge and that going to a place called “Dial House” where you can go if you feel suicidal, and need company, saved her. Dial House followed by counselling gave her skills to cope with the stress of seeking asylum .She said ” Nothing has changed in my situation but I have changed”. IMG_3040 Another woman focused on differences in health care back home and here such as not seeing a doctor unless you were ill and never seeing a midwife and how this had impacted on her family when they came to the UK. How she had complications in her 4 pregnancies but didn’t access maternity because she didn’t believe she was meant too. Another shared that one GP  had refused to write her a letter of support when she could hardly walk and had to walk nearly three miles to the Home Office  to sign each week but that her second GP had taken time to listen, even when she felt unable to speak and was self harming and referred her to counselling in the third sector. This lead to a really fruitful discussion about accessing health, using third sector organisations, health awards and giving people opportunities to have fun!

Maurice Wren, the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council was at the workshop and referred to it in his presentation saying that the Refugee Council and other RCO’s need to focus more on giving sanctuary seekers a voice as they are the “Experts by experience”. The final speaker shared his experience of seeking sanctuary and said. “In life you make plans but no one plans to become a refugee” It was a stark reminder that life can drastically change at any moment and we need to support each other through these changes.

City of Sanctuary National Heath and Maternity Streams Coordinator, Rose McCarthy chaired the final session on ‘moving forward’. Rose told us “I was delighted that having talked to various people in the day, one action they want to take forward is to set up a City of Sanctuary Group in Norwich! There was a buzz about this at every break which is really exciting. If we work in partnership we can change the world and make it a better place for us all to live in!”

If you are interested in reading more about the Migrant Health Conference you can do so on a blog written by Sarah Walpole for the BMW


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