Marta Rocco at Kakuma Refugee CampMy name is Marta and I’m the Community Engagement Coordinator at Volunteer Centre Sutton, working on our Citizens Commissioning, Young Commissioners and Open Doors projects. As well as my day job, I’m also studying a law conversion course, after qualifying as a lawyer in my home country of Brazil.

For Refugee Week, I would like to share my experiences as a volunteer, working with organisations that support refugees.

My volunteering journey started in 2009, when I was changing careers from tax law to humanitarian law. I was given the opportunity to volunteer as an assistant lawyer to a charity in Brazil called Caritas Arquidiocesana de Sao Paulo. The organisation was the first point of contact for many refugees that had just arrived in the country, most of the time with no money, no documents and no home. All they would bring was their stories. Countless times I watched the social workers running against time to find a bed for the night, some toiletries and some dignity. And then we would listen to their stories. That was my role - to listen to these people’s stories, of horror and fear, courage and determination – and to assess and determine their refugee status.

When I first came to this country, I lived in Newcastle and I volunteered at the North of England Refugee Service, supporting refugees to find housing. As a newcomer myself, I often found that the client and I were learning together how things worked – how to set up utility accounts, how to work the thermostat and how to manage the inevitable mold and condensation in the North’s cold and damp climate.

Later in my career, I flew to Kakuma, a refugee camp in the northwest of Kenya, home to more than 185,000 refugees and asylum seekers. This was in 2014 when thousands of South Sudanese were crossing the border into Kenya to escape the South Sudanese Civil War. It was also the year that Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, signed the infamous Anti-Gay Law, causing hundreds of Ugandans to flee to neighbouring countries, running away from persecution by their own peers. I was deployed as a United Nations Volunteer, working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Living in Kakuma was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Refugee camps are intended as temporary shelters, designed to meet only the most basic of human needs for a limited period of time. In Kakuma, refugees are not allowed to work or to leave the camp. Most people there were surviving rather than living. They had very little power or choice to make changes in their lives. This was in stark contrast to my experience of refugees in São Paulo who were given the opportunity to work or study, and to rebuild their lives with a higher level of control and decision-making.

But what I really learned from my time in Kakuma was that even in the most adverse of circumstances, there was still a will to strive and build a better place and make a better life, and a home away from home. The streets of the Kakuma camp are filled with shops, markets, and restaurants. I fell in love with Ethiopian food and culture in the middle of the desert in Kenya!

I am an immigrant rather than a refugee. I was born in Brazil and lived there until my late 20s when I moved to the UK. I chose to leave Brazil of my own free will, and I can always choose to return. Refugees don’t have that choice. I haven’t had to face the many difficulties and adversities that refugees face on a daily basis. But I can empathise with refugees and the desire to find your home away from home. From my own experience, it has been volunteering that has really helped make me feel connected to my local community.

This was the inspiration for our recently launched Open Doors project. We’re working with members of the community who would like to volunteer but may face barriers that they need help to overcome. We want to make volunteering accessible to all so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of volunteering. For refugees, volunteering can help them feel more connected to their new community, so that they can find a home away from home.

If you would like the support of the Open Doors project, please contact the Open Doors Team at the Volunteer Centre Sutton at opendoors@vcsutton.org.uk or 020 8661 5900 and ask to speak to a member of the Open Doors Team.