Community Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (CARAS) is a Tooting-based community group supporting refugees and asylum seekers in South London. Believing that people who have sought refuge in the UK should be welcomed and valued within a community in which they can flourish, they have more than 15 years of experience in supporting refugees and asylum seekers to integrate and lead independent lives. Last week, we got a chance to speak to Eleanor, CARAS’ Managing Director, to find out what makes them so vital in the lives of the people they support.
Why would you say you as a small charity make a big difference for the individuals and/or communities you support?
We work with refugees and asylum seekers at every stage of their journey towards settling here in their new city. We recognise that people have experienced extremely painful situations, much of which they carry with them. Not only that, they can be some of the most marginalised in our community, often excluded from other support because of unresolved immigration status, poverty, or language barriers. We work closely with each person who comes through our doors, running a range of activities that support people to feel welcome, and to move forwards with their lives.
How does your support differ from larger organisations and/or public services?
Large organisations have a huge reach and can use their voice to campaign and to effect change through their policy work. Smaller organisations like ours can play a different role. For us, being rooted in our local community is crucial – we want everyone in our community to feel safe and supported, for welcome to be instinctive, and for everyone to feel a sense of responsibility and care to each other. We do this both by what happens inside our four walls, but also by working extensively with other local groups – we've built links with other professionals and community groups who come to run activities with us. We've also been able to look at things which help people feel themselves again- not just English classes and casework which is so crucial for the first steps in settling here, but also activities which help people develop friendships, and which celebrate their skills and interests.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a small charity?
It's no surprise that funding is our biggest issue. We operate our projects on a shoestring, whilst also trying to pay talented staff well enough that they will continue to do this work. We are fortunate to have a small number of reliable donors who make a huge difference, to have amazing staff, and to have a small army of volunteers and local community groups who multiply our work exponentially.
What are you most proud of as an organisation?
There's plenty to choose from! We recently heard one of our young people say that we had been the only people to fully explain his situation to him. The majority of people we work with have lost family members, with our largest group being made up of unaccompanied and separated children- children who have arrived in the UK without a family member who can take care of them. CARAS is often described as being like family- a heart-breaking but beautiful sentiment.
Is isolation a challenge to your beneficiaries? If so, how do you support them?
Without organisations like ours many people tell us that they would not have made friends, they wouldn't have a friendly to come to each week, and they wouldn't know who to turn to when they needed advice or support. When you are a newly arrived person, trying to find your place in a new city without any friends or family, you can be very isolated and lonely. Everything we do is about connection – to peers, to local volunteers, to activities and groups in the local area, and to statutory and legal services.