Social work in a SW England NGO during lockdown


Prepared by Natalie Pethick

I qualified as a social worker last September and got a job at START where I completed my final placement. This NGO in the south west of the UK supports refugees to access their rights and provides student placements for social work and occupational therapy Because of the crisis, all 15 students had to leave. I, and my 6 colleagues are providing essential services  – protecting income security, housing and physical/mental health – for refugees.

With everyone in lockdown, we work from home and have daily Zoom meetings. This is a good way to support each other. We have two mobile phones each because some of the work needs an interpreter. I use one phone to call the service user, then phone the interpreter to have a three-way conversation. We can support people using their first language even if we can’t meet in person.

Refugees use Whatsapp to send us photos of letters, and I have made a video call with it to show someone how to read a payment meter. People may write messages to us in their first language which I translate with Google Translate. We have a good support network; a volunteer helps me with a refugee who is self-isolating, by going to the supermarket and delivering his shopping.

Working from home has its frustrations; it can be difficult to work with people over the phone if you have not met before. Sometimes you cannot help people because they are not physically with you to give consent. For example, a refugee posted her only form of identity to get a driving licence and moved to a new property. She does not speak English and asked me to update her address to ensure the safe return of her proof of ID. The office concerned would not speak to me, however, as I was not with her.

After work it can be difficult to ‘shut off’ because work is never far away. I spend a lot of time talking to other professionals to ensure that families are fully supported. Feeling connected helps us all as everyone is struggling through lockdown.

After lockdown we expect a surge of work, mainly helping people to move which stopped during the pandemic. Under homelessness prevention duties, families in temporary housing will be moved to permanent accommodation,  and refugees still in asylum support housing will need to move on. Before the lockdown, our city also pledged to resettle a number of Syrian families so  START will be soon be very busy welcoming new families.

START was the best placement I could have asked for. I didn’t know anything about people who are refugees before, but was well supported with lots of opportunites to learn, so was happy to return after I qualified. I have started my career differently from many of my peers who have gone into statutory work, but the work I am doing challenges me to be the best social worker I can be.