Harassed, stressed, tired and disorientated people are arriving in Leeds from all over Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East and finding a warm welcome and a helping hand.
‘The idea is to help people arrive in a calmer, and less nervous state as they go into a ‘life or death’ situation’, explains Matthew Neill.‘What we offer is a friendly face in a hostile place. I hope by doing this we can turn the world into a more welcoming place.’
Matthew coordinates volunteers in Leeds, who aim to make the last 2.2 miles of the journey as easy as possible. He has twenty-three volunteers, most of whom are asylum seekers or refugees, who are invaluable because of the many languages they speak.
Asylum seekers sent to this region are initially housed for about a week in a hostel in Wakefield before being dispersed across town and cities throughout Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East. Having been sent miles across the country the person is then required to return to Leeds to attend their asylum interview. The Home Office provides tickets to get to Leeds station but then expects the person to find their own way in an unknown city, often in an unknown language. Although asylum seekers have often made traumatic journeys across thousands of miles with limited resources, the last few miles still present great difficulty.
‘The Home Office provided tickets for a train that arrived in Leeds 30 minutes before my appointment. That’s not long enough. I wanted to arrive earlier so that I felt calm. I paid an extra £15 out of my £36.62 weekly allowance so that I could take an earlier train.’
That’s where Matthew’s team of volunteers help. The volunteer arranges to meet an asylum seeker at Leeds train station and escorts them the 2.2 miles to the Home Office – usually by bus.
When the person finally arrives at the Home Office in Leeds they have to undertake their ‘Big Interview’. This interview can last up to seven hours and informs whether someone is given permission to remain in the UK or is refused and potentially deported. For many asylum seekers this interview is seen as their only chance to preserve their life and it is therefore an acutely stressful situation even without the added difficulty of navigating across a new city in a foreign language that many people do not speak or read.
‘It doesn’t always work out smoothly,’ said Matthew. ‘One lady’s interview lasted from 11.15 until 4.15. She would have been exhausted and stressed. On top of that she knew her train left Leeds station at 4.30 and couldn’t see how to get herself and her two children back to Newcastle, especially as she didn’t speak English. Our volunteer tried to explain that there were other trains she could take but with the stress of the situation all she wanted to do was to get herself and her family back home safely. With all the emotion and panic the only solution she could see was to take a taxi from Leeds to Newcastle – spending all the money she had just received for child support.’
What we do is really important. I remember that when I couldn’t speak English I used to get lost on the bus all the time. I’m so happy to be part of it.
Matthew and his Meet and Travel Together team of volunteers certainly do make a difference as expressed by an asylum seeker, who had been met in Leeds,
‘Thanks so much for being there for me when I felt stuck at the railway station not knowing what to do and time was running out fast. It made my day so much better.’
This article was first published as part of 365 Leeds Stories.