Welcoming young people seeking asylum and refugees into units

Our Inclusion advisers answer some common questions

21 June 2022

Welcoming refugees and people seeking asylum into your unit might feel daunting, but you aren’t expected to know everything.

Our inclusion advisers have answered some common questions to help you get started.  

What should I do to make refugees feel welcome when they first come to my unit? 

Welcoming a refugee or person seeking asylum into your unit isn’t very different from welcoming anyone new. Greet them with a smile, introduce yourself and ask them what their name is. Names are a huge part of our identity so it’s important to learn how to pronounce their name properly. You could get everyone to wear name badges of play a name game. Give them a tour of your meeting place and maybe put pictures around your meeting place with labels so they can quickly see where to find things like the toilet, the fire exit, or the cupboard. 

Then, introduce them to other members of the unit. Assigning a buddy is a good way to help a young member feel supported without asking an adult. You might decide to let the members of your unit know in advance that you will be welcoming a refugee or asylum seeker into the unit. Emphasise that while it’s okay to be curious, the new member won’t want to be asked lots of difficult questions and may not want to talk about their experiences at all. You should also be mindful of the other members of your unit and avoid showing any bias, especially where there are ongoing conflicts. 

Using our communication passport could be a great way to get to know the new member, find things in common with other young members, start conversations and make friends. 

Do I need to change my unit programme or traditions? 

There are a few things to think about if you have refugees and people seeking asylum in your unit.  

Think about the content of your meetings and how they might bring up difficult memories or experiences. For example, a fathers’ day craft activity could be upsetting for a member whose father has been involved in and maybe even died in a war. Also be mindful of triggers like loud noises, such as popping balloons or whistles, and how this might affect someone who has experienced explosions or air raid signals. If you’re unsure, ask them what they are and aren’t comfortable with.  

You might need to be flexible about your usual routines, especially if it involves a sudden change. For example, some Brownie units move on to Guides as soon as they turn ten. But for a nine-year-old refugee or person seeking asylum who has only just joined your unit, this transition could be too soon and not give them enough time to adjust. Consider letting them stay an extra year or just starting them at Guides early to maintain their sense of stability. 

Think about cultural differences too, such as: 

  • many cultures avoid tight-fitting clothing so be flexible about the uniform members wear 
  • gestures can mean completely different things in other cultures
  • different body parts can be sacred in certain cultures and shouldn’t be touched 
  • holidays are not the same around the world 
  • in some cultures, you should only eat food with your right hand because the left hand is considered unclean. 

At Girlguiding, we are proud of being an inclusive organisation and we love seeing our units celebrating diversity. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the attitudes towards inclusion can vary in other countries. So, you may need to carefully consider how you approach these types of activities and have discussions.  

You might want to use our Adjustment plans if you’re welcoming disabled refugees. 

You aren’t expected to know every cultural difference or change every aspect of your programme but it’s important to be sensitive and learn about these differences. 

How should I communicate with a member that doesn’t speak much, or any, English? 

Some people may feel comfortable finding ways to communicate on their own, but others might prefer having a parent or friend come with them to help them communicate. 

When you’re speaking English, don’t speak louder or use unnatural language like ‘We go outside’ instead of ‘We are going to go outside now’. Instead, use English, speak clearly but naturally, and avoid jargon and acronyms. 

Try and provide written as well as verbal instructions for activities because these can be easier to understand. If you want to know whether your writing is clear enough, try the Hemingway Editor. 

You could also communicate visually, using gestures, pictures and demonstrations. The new member may also feel more confident communicating in this way than by speaking or writing. The Communications Skills builder could be a good way to help everyone understand each other. Girlguiding’s visual timetable is another useful tool as it has cards to explain the meeting structure and programme, cards for special events and cards to show feelings. You can order a pack by emailing [email protected] or print the cards off yourself. 

A great way to help a refugee or person seeking asylum feel valued in your unit is to communicate with them in their native language, even if it’s just a few basic words like ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’. 

But it’s important not to make assumptions. Lots of countries have more than one official language, and they might speak a local dialect instead so find out which language they use first.   

What about communicating with parents and carers? 

Use the same techniques to communicate with young members’ parents. Avoid jargon, provide written and verbal information, and use plain English.  

Make sure you have a way to communicate with a young member’s parent or carer. Find out their emergency contact details, that they know how to contact you and create a plan for communication. For example, do they want you to email information or call them to explain it verbally? Or do they need a translator? Decide this with them as everyone has a different preferred way of communicating. 

For families who are new to Girlguiding in the UK, it might be a good idea to explain who we are and what we do. Girl Guides and Girl Scouts exist in 152 countries across the world so they might have a similar organisation in their home country! 

Many refugees and asylum seekers have support from local families, charities or local authority officials. If in doubt, get advice from them.

How do I support refugees and people seeking asylum emotionally? 

Don’t make assumptions about how someone is feeling. Refugees and asylum seekers often feel upset about their situation, but others may feel relieved.  

Avoid asking questions or talking about where they’ve come from as this may well be too painful for them to talk about. Also avoid sharing thoughts and feelings on personal feelings or political views. But if they do want to talk about it, listen to them and show empathy, but don’t feel that you need to have a solution. Also avoid saying things like ‘it will all be okay’ or ‘I’m sure you’ll be able to go back soon’ because this might not be possible.  

It might be a good idea to give the member a time out card, or use a card from our visual timetable, to let them take a break without needing to say or explain anything. Decide together on a safe place for them to go when they need some space so that you know where they are and can check on them. 

What do I do if I have concerns? 

Refugees or people seeking asylum joining your unit may have experienced some deeply traumatising things. If they choose to disclose any of this to you, follow our Safeguarding procedure. 

According to the Refugee Council, refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs that the UK population, so it’s especially important to be able to spot signs that someone is struggling. For more advice and support, please get in touch with volunteer support at [email protected] for more resources.