BY REBECCA THOMSON
On any given Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, the day centres run by (SDCAS) are busy: a queue forms for lunches, people wait patiently for advice and help on anything from legal issues to housing, and children play in the free creche while their parents chat.
Part opportunity to socialise, part crucial lifeline, these day centres are one of the only sources of remaining support for refugees and asylum seekers in South London, with two centres in Peckham and one in Kennington.
SDCAS was formed more than 20 years ago, but the need for the centres has become particularly acute in recent years.
Many of the clients attending every week have been waiting years, even decades, for an answer to their asylum claim, and have not been allowed to work in the meantime.
Staff estimate around a third of the cohort is homeless, partly because some are refused asylum but cannot return home – because they have no way to get there, and because it is not safe to do so.
“People remain off the radar of mainstream society and pretty much invisible,” says SDCAS co-ordinator Pauline Nandoo.
“The asylum process is still unfair. People are living in the country for years without receiving any decision on their application, and they can’t work.
They’re usually living in bad accommodation or are homeless. This can go on for quite a long time until the cases are resolved.”
SDCAS helps by offering advice and help with housing and legal matters. It also provides access to hot food, clothing, English classes and other activities, counselling – many clients were victims of torture and other trauma in their home countries – and a crucial opportunity to connect with other people in similar situations.
“This was the only place I felt safe,” said Zahia, who came to the UK from Algeria in 2005 and received leave to remain in 2010.
For a period between those two dates, she was homeless.
“The Home Office gave me a room at first, but then refused my first claim so I had nowhere to live. Sometimes I couldn’t eat.
When I was cold I sat in McDonald’s. If I had a bus pass I could sit on the bus all day, but I couldn’t always do that. It was very hard.”
Zahia came to the UK alone after suffering domestic abuse. “My husband wanted to kill me.
I ran away, but he still wanted to find me,” she said. She came to the UK with no family or friends, and has attempted to build a life for herself since then.
Since attending the day centres, she has found somewhere to live in Camberwell and had her claim accepted, but she still suffers from health problems which began when she was homeless.
She hopes in the future to get a job working with children.
Bettina Dreier, one of the staff at the day centres, says the asylum process means many people lose the skills that made them employable, because they are not allowed to work while they wait for a decision from the Home Office.
Most of the time, however, this decision takes years. “We have had electricians, tailors, teachers, doctors,” Bettina said. “At the moment we have a electrician from Iraq.
He had to wait 15 years for his leave to remain to be granted. He wasn’t allowed to work, and after that time he was unemployable. He wasn’t up to date with his skills, and he was feeling so low that he was on heavy antidepressants.
“He’s still not employed, even though he’s a highly intelligent man. Had they let him work while he was waiting he would have been able to keep his skills up. Now he’s on sickness benefits. It happens often.”
She added that not allowing those seeking asylum to work makes an already challenging situation even more difficult.
“These people had a bit of status back home, and here they have nothing,” she said. “They have to queue up for everything, fill in forms they don’t understand. They don’t get treated with any respect or dignity and they lose confidence and skills.”
Another client at the centre, Cecile, came to the UK from the Democratic Republic of Congo 12 years ago, where she lost both her children to violence in the region.
She has had no status for 11 of those years, and was homeless until being granted temporary leave to remain in 2018. During that time she was also diagnosed with a terminal illness.
A judge actually granted her leave to remain a few years ago, telling her she had ‘been through enough’, but the Home Office appealed the decision.
Bettina said: “This is a woman who is 70 years old and is really quite ill. She cannot return to the Congo.
“It’s encouraging to see how she has managed to keep going.” One the centres’ earliest clients, who asked to remain anonymous, came to the UK from Afghanistan with her family when she was just nine years old.
She picked up English quickly, and acted as an interpreter for her parents.
She is now in her 20s and has just completed a PhD in psychology; one of her three brothers, meanwhile, is applying to medical schools in London. “We used to go to the centres every week when we first arrived, to get advice, support and take part in the group sessions and activities,” she said.
“The staff helped us with forms we didn’t understand and other things.” SDCAS has faced significant cuts in funding as a result of government austerity over the past five years, even as demand for its services has increased.
It is hoping more people in the area will sign up to its monthly friends donation scheme via its website and it is often looking for volunteers for those interested in becoming more involved.
Go to sdcas.org.uk to find out more.