As I’m a straight, young, white male a lot of my clients are cautious about opening up to me at first. My demographic is the most privileged on earth, and they wonder why I help them. But I’ve become a bit of a go-to man for the Care4Calais Access Team when it comes to LGBTQ clients. It helps that I have the best interpreter ever, who puts everyone at ease.
I have clients from all over the world. So many places are still unsafe for any LGBTQ people, but although this is well documented it’s still so very hard to prove they would be in danger if they went home.
My name is Tristan and I’ve been volunteering with the Access Team for about 10 months now. The Access Team exists to match asylum seekers to solicitors who can help with their claims, but we do a lot more too, helping refugees with the challenges they face and sometimes just providing an important listening ear.
My undergraduate degree was History and International Studies, but I’m studying full time on a law conversion course now. I’ve always liked to defend ideas and to advocate for others, and when I attended a legal event a while back I was hooked on law by the end of it. I’d found my tribe and my vocation.
I found Care4Calais on Instagram when I was on a year off. I’d been in Calais when the old Jungle was there, and I’d worked for RCK at the time so knew something of the refugees’ plight. I had also volunteered in Panama helping people get access to legal support.
But what really made my mind up was winning a competition. The prize was to work on a trial at the Old Bailey. It just happened to be a high-profile trafficking case – we were defending the traffickers.
During the trial I had to read hundreds of text messages from the victims, many of them sent while in the small boats crossing dangerous waters. Most of these messages were simply to family, to say, “I love you” or just “Goodbye”.
When people face death their thoughts are with the family they left behind, and they want to say goodbye or hear their voices again.
It was so obvious that what was happening was wrong, and this time the traffickers were sent down. But the case sealed my decision to become a lawyer.
But before that, I wanted to volunteer in the UK and Care4Calais was a perfect fit. The Access Team is such a brilliant group of people, helping with much more than matching asylum seekers to solicitors. We find English classes and rail fares; answer incredibly hard calls; find clothing; ring Migrant help about accommodation, and often just listen to people. We can get calls any time of day or night.
Asylum seekers message our WhatsApp number to get help. We add them to a spreadsheet, and we take the ones at the top when we have capacity – we have a really quick turnaround considering the numbers of people we help.
I took a couple of LGBTQ cases in the beginning knowing they would be difficult, and now, after ten months I have become the resident expert in this area. Mind you, my interpreter is a Godsend – he’s gay, an Iraqi news reader, and he’s such a character that he reassures my clients straight away and puts them at ease. I love the way the clients begin to trust me and then open up, showing me who they really are and why they came to the UK.
But they always ask me two questions. First, “Are you gay?” And then, when I say no: “Then why do you help us?”
It’s a challenging role and my clients are extremely vulnerable. They are persecuted and abused in their home countries and come to ours looking for safety. In some countries the penalty is death.
I also take the cases of people in Napier Barracks – those wanting to move out, and a lot of misaged minor cases. These young people are often put in hotels for adults; one of my clients was only 16, but when the Home Office said he was 25 he was sent to a hotel on his own.
I get them into social care while they wait to be reassessed. It’s brilliant to see them blossom when they have a foster family and begin school or college. So many are so grateful, and always promise to repay the favour.
It’s not all good news. Now I’m an experienced volunteer dealt with serious cases that include people telling me they are thinking of death – one man was actually trying to kill himself as he called me. All I can do is talk to them, keep them on the line and try to find urgent help. This is an incredibly difficult part of the job, but it’s so necessary because it means they have someone to talk to, someone to call.
There are some brilliant moments. It’s amazing when you get a phone call saying, “Hi, I’m still here and I saw my lawyer today!” The very best ones are calls to say “I have refugee status!” That’s when you know all the work and the pain has been worthwhile. It means you’ve made a huge difference to that person’s life.
The work is humbling, and it has made me think deeply about the world. The asylum seekers have educated me beyond what university taught me, and they have given me a determination to challenge injustice where I see it.
Our work is constantly increasing, and we need more people on the team. If you have time and are committed to helping refugees please join us. I can’t think of a more interesting, worthwhile and life-changing volunteer role. Just email [email protected]