About ten years ago, I started taking my children to a drop-in centre where families in Swansea could chat, eat and play with families seeking asylum here. They did the classic kids' thing of not seeing any difference between themselves and the kids there - if only the rest of the world was like that! And as I spoke to people who said they were bored or lonely but couldn't work while their asylum applications were considered, I thought, 'There's a great pool of volunteers here!'
More than 100 refugees and asylum seekers have volunteered in the shop since then. When they're here they're people, not asylum seekers or refugees. That's a very simple sentence but it means
an awful lot. I think not being defined by their situation is what often matters most. I always say, 'If you hear anyone complaining about lazy asylum seekers, tell them to come into our shop!' People tend to be very determined and make excellent volunteers. It makes my job more interesting and more fun to be surrounded by people from around the world, too. We were part of a really good community campaign after one volunteer, George, was suddenly taken with his family to a detention centre. All the
regulars knew him but didn't necessarily know his situation. We got more than 3,000 signatures and he was eventually released. I think a lot of people stopped and thought about the asylum process at that point. It showed how a community campaign can really make a difference.
We run all kinds of events to bring people together and raise awareness, like coffee mornings, arts events and our Common Language evenings, where we get people together to share basic phrases in their language. As one volunteer from Eritrea said to me recently, language just connects people.
We were the first shop in the UK to be recognised as a 'Shop of Sanctuary'. It's a scheme that shows your commitment to welcoming people who are seeking refuge here. It gives everyone involved in the shop - wherever they are from - a great sense of pride for being part of something open and welcoming in the community.
Wherever Oxfam works in the world, we look to engage in local communities. I don't think shops should be any different. We're doing something that should be completely ordinary, but isn't. I want people to see what we're doing and copy it.