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Table of Contents
Year : 2023  |  Volume : 21  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 76-79

Us and Us: Reflections of the Wellbeing of Church-based Volunteers Working with Refugees and Asylum-seekers, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh City Mission (Salaam), 7 Washington Lane, Edinburgh EH11 2HA, UK

Date of Submission02-Feb-2023
Date of Acceptance03-Feb-2023
Date of Web Publication27-Apr-2023

Correspondence Address:
PhD Megan Douglas
Edinburgh City Mission (Salaam)
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/intv.intv_2_23

Rights and Permissions

Over the past 5 years, Scotland has seen numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers increase significantly. Churches and other faith-based organisations have been key players in aiding with the reception and integration of these “New Scots”. Although many volunteers characterise their experiences as positive, there have also been unique challenges presented for their mental health and emotional wellbeing as they navigate complex relationships and stories of hardship. Drawing from first-hand experience of working within a faith-based charity that aims to support refugees and asylum-seekers in Edinburgh, Scotland, the author provides her personal reflections on the dynamics of working within the context of refugee resettlement and implications for the wellbeing of both volunteers and New Scots.

Keywords: churches, nonprofits, refugees, Scotland, wellbeing

How to cite this article:
Douglas M. Us and Us: Reflections of the Wellbeing of Church-based Volunteers Working with Refugees and Asylum-seekers, Edinburgh, Scotland. Intervention 2023;21:76-9

How to cite this URL:
Douglas M. Us and Us: Reflections of the Wellbeing of Church-based Volunteers Working with Refugees and Asylum-seekers, Edinburgh, Scotland. Intervention [serial online] 2023 [cited 2023 May 29];21:76-9. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org//text.asp?2023/21/1/76/375058

  Introduction Top

At the end of 2022, Scotland has provided sanctuary for over 7,000 people (Scottish Government, 2022), the majority are from Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. As UK and Scottish national and local governments struggle to meet the rising demand of addressing the immediate and long-term needs of these “New Scots”, churches have been increasingly recognised as key players within the effort to offer hospitality and facilitate socioeconomic integration. Across Scotland, churches are responding to the refugee crisis by hosting community-based services and interventions for refugees, many for the very first time. Community-based charities partner with these churches to help facilitate relationship-building and grow the capacity for refugee support through language, social, and arts-based activities. These activities have the potential for being therapeutic and facilitating greater cross-cultural understanding; yet there is also the risk of retraumatisation and entrenching “us versus them” mentalities between volunteers and New Scots. This article details two proactive and trauma-informed strategies to mitigate distress among volunteers while also challenging power differentials: boundary-making and emphasising the importance of compassionate listening.

Article Overview

I draw from first-hand experience as a community development worker within a faith-based charity in Edinburgh, Scotland, that coordinates integration efforts for refugees and asylum-seekers. I provide personal reflections on the dynamics of working within the context of refugee resettlement and implications on the wellbeing of both volunteers and “beneficiaries” within the dynamic relationship of volunteer–New Scot. I consider how “White majority churches”, or churches that have a majority Caucasian congregation, becoming involved in promoting New Scot integration, in varying capacities, both challenges and perpetuates power asymmetries that likely have significant implications for the mental health and wellbeing of ethnic minorities in Edinburgh. In an effort to mitigate ethical risks accompanied with conducting research among and writing about “vulnerable populations”, the article focuses more on the role of the volunteer and less on New Scots. In addition, though there is an abundance of scholarly research on settled refugees and asylum-seekers within the UK (Morrice, 2007; Phillimore, 2021; Strang & Quinn, 2021), there is considerably less on the role of churches and church-based volunteers within the same context. The article will first provide a brief context for the reflection, then identify some of the key challenges identified concerning the wellbeing of volunteers, and close with discussion on some of the strategies employed to mitigate such challenges.


Over the last decade, Edinburgh has received an unprecedented number of protracted forcibly displaced people. Since 2015, Scotland received over 3,200 registered Syrian refugees following the Syrian refugee crisis, many of whom settled in Edinburgh and remain in the city today. Following the withdrawal of foreign military forces and the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in the summer of 2021, around 200 Afghan refugees arrived in Edinburgh, most of whom are residing in two “bridging hotels”, which provide temporary accommodation while they await more permanent housing solutions. With the war in Ukraine ongoing, an estimated 4,000 Ukrainian refugees arrived over the course of 2022, many of whom are currently residing in a cruise ship off the port of Leith.

Refugees in Edinburgh face a multitude of challenges, chief among them is access to already-strained social services, such as healthcare, housing and enrolment in primary education for children. Although refugees are legally entitled to work in Scotland, language barriers make it nearly impossible for many to find employment. For those who do speak English, tight regulations around certification for them make reemployment difficult. There are also growing challenges with mental health and wellbeing, particularly among the women and children who have been living in the bridging hotels, some of whom have been there for over a year with no end in sight.

Being forced to leave one’s home and social networks to start a life in a new, sometimes dramatically different, context presents high levels of stress and anxiety for many. Forcibly displaced people experience a myriad of challenges to their mental health and wellbeing (Sheath et al., 2020). Within the hosting country, particularly if there are large numbers of migrants needing social assistance, there may be the inability to meet the demand for social services, like healthcare and education, which can compound pre- and post-displacement stressors.

In response to the growing numbers of New Scots in Edinburgh, several faith-based and other civil society groups have responded with the provision of free and accessible social and educational opportunities. One of these groups is a programme run by the charity that I work for, Edinburgh City Mission. The charity has a number of programmes, including a clothing bank, food banks, friendship programmes for isolated seniors, and an initiative which strives to empower ethnic minority and foreign-language churches in Edinburgh. The programme I work for, Salaam, focuses on providing opportunities for relationship-building between churches, volunteers, and New Scots in Edinburgh. This is done through several initiatives, including a befriending programme, which links individual volunteers with New Scots; a monthly social event hosted by a local church for settled New Scots; a weekly English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class for Afghan women residing in temporary accommodation; and a weekly curriculum of arts and crafts activities hosted by a local church.

As part of its mandate as belonging to a Christian charity, the programme strives to meaningfully incorporate local churches in all of its programming; this typically means using church venues to hold events, as well as drawing from church networks to provide volunteers to facilitate activities. There is no “typical” volunteer, though many are older, retired Caucasian men and women of Scottish or English heritage who attend the church that is hosting New Scot activities. There is a mix of motivations for wanting to get involved; some have personally experienced moving to a new city or country and are driven by an empathetic response. Others cite their Christian faith as a motivator.1 Among the volunteers, there is a variety of levels of exposure to vulnerable populations, like refugees and asylum-seekers.2 For many, volunteering with the charity and partner churches was their first in-person interaction with refugees and/or asylum-seekers. There are also varying levels of training around themes like cultural sensitivity and trauma-informed care.

  Discussion Top

Over the past year, the programme team began receiving increasing reports, shared via volunteers who participated at events we facilitated, of moments of distress among (predominantly adult female) New Scots. At one event, for example, I was approached by two female volunteers who informed me that an older Afghan woman had begun crying. When I asked the volunteers if they knew why, they replied that the Afghan woman had said that two of her daughters were still in Afghanistan, and that by seeing all the other families together she felt very sad to be apart from them. Although signs of distress (i.e., crying, hunched shoulders) have caused concern in volunteers, the absence of visible distress can also be a source for concern and confusion. “They told me a terrible story with a blank face”, I was told by one volunteer after an interaction with a Ukrainian who shared a story about her husband fighting in the war. “I had no clue how to respond”. We also noticed among many volunteers a concern if they did not know the answers to complex questions asked by New Scots; at a weekend event for New Scots, for example, I was approached by an older male volunteer with a worried expression on his face. “I was just asked [by a Ukrainian man] about how he can find work,” he said in a panicked voice. “What do I say to him?” Other volunteers came to me with questions they had been asked relating to immigration status, acquiring visas for loved ones, and obtaining a driver’s licence.

As volunteers shared stories of interactions with New Scots where they had seen symptoms of distress (like crying or social withdrawal) or heard stories of trauma (i.e., war, sexual abuse, human trafficking), or simply practical concerns (i.e., finding a job, acquiring a driver’s licence), programme staff and leaders of partnering churches began to be concerned about the capacity of volunteers to i) respond to challenging stories or signs of distress in a trauma-informed manner and ii) mitigate the risk of vicarious, or secondary, trauma in themselves. There was growing interest in specialised training for volunteers on how to respond to New Scots who had experienced extreme hardship, and several churches came to us for training provision, perhaps seeing our organisation as a knowledge-holder in this area.

Although there are numerous studies which demonstrate a positive correlation between volunteering and wellbeing (Lum & Lightfoot, 2005; Mellor et al., 2009; Russell et al., 2019), there is also an emerging body of research which considers risk for negative mental and emotional health impacts, including high levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (Jaffe et al., 2012), burnout (Akintola et al., 2013) and vicarious stress disorder (Stanković, 2018). The challenges for our programme staff in supporting our own volunteers have been numerous and complex; capacity limitations within our own team around knowledge/experience with mental health and wellbeing; time restrictions faced by both our organisation’s staff (most of whom are part-time) and the volunteers; and the recognition that information must be accessible to volunteers who are new to the area of refugee-support and, in some cases, thinking about mental health. In addition, the very mention of clinical terminology such as “mental health” and “trauma” can create a liability of sorts, raising important questions around the limitations of both our own organisational remit and the responsibility of volunteers. What might a 55-year-old Scottish male volunteer who just signed up to serve coffee and tea on a Saturday afternoon to refugees, for example, think about our insistence of being “trauma-informed” to avoid “retraumatisation” of the victims of war? We feared such clinical language and emphasis could potentially “turn off” prospective volunteers or, perhaps ironically, stir up greater anxiety and distress among volunteers than is warranted.

At the same time, we acknowledged that something needed to be done to better support ourselves and others in working with New Scots, many of whom had/continue to encounter highly distressing life events. We did not wish to frame New Scots as victims in need of pity, yet simultaneously, we acknowledge that a pollyannaish stance which is blind to the potential of trauma was also unhelpful. A balanced, holistic approach was needed. The remainder of this article presents some of the strategies the programme team has employed in an effort to promote the wellbeing of volunteers and New Scots, without reinforcing power differentials.

We became interested in how some experiences of distress arising from concerns around not knowing what to do or how to behave in interactions with a New Scot who was sharing difficult stories or exhibiting signs of distress might be rooted in sentiments of power differentials. In other words, concerns among volunteers from such experiences are perhaps rooted in a deeper belief in the need to be a problem-solver, rather than a listener and positive presence. In her podcast, author and social worker Brené Brown, in conversation with clinical psychologist and author Chris Germer, explores the difference between pity and kindness (Brown, 2022). As Germer suggests, pity, a “near enemy” of kindness, which is comparative and judgemental rather than rooted in common humanity, can be a coping mechanism for the pain or fear of inability to bring positive change for others. As such, we began beginning certain New Scot events with a discussion about the importance of seeing everyone gathered as “us and us” rather than “us and them”, and that it is ok to not have all the answers to questions, chiefly because the volunteers’ role is to be present, to listen, and to show kindness (not pity). Austrian Jewish and Israeli philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) tempers hierarchical thinking that is often rife within cross-cultural relationships with his thoughts on how people imagine social relationships in terms of either “I- it” or “I-thou” (Buber, 1970). The former is an attitude which sees relationships with others as having distinctive bounds that separate themselves, whereas the latter attitude frames others as being living, dynamic individuals deserving of a relationship. Our team became attentive to discourses surrounding New Scots and how language used by volunteers so often hint towards an “I-It” type of framing of “the Other” (the terms “New Scot”, itself, as well as “volunteer” have their own flaws). Vocabularies around “helping”, “serving”, “teaching”, which is likely being used with the best of intentions, can often bely an undercurrent of patronising, trivialising and “Othering” mentalities that are not so easily challenged. Encouraging shift in vocabularies is not always easy, particularly when it is communicated from influential individuals, such as pastors from the pulpit. We believe that the language we use when referring to others shapes the way we think about and behave towards them. Assuring volunteers that they are not present to be experts, but rather there to be a positive presence and participate in the events not only minimises stress but also challenges perceived power hierarchies which position volunteers as knowledge-holders and New Scots as the receivers.

At the request of one of our key contacts at a local church we have partnered with in the past to deliver social events for New Scots, our team delivered a virtual training workshop that covered topics including safeguarding and cultural competency, but also measures for maintaining good wellbeing for volunteers, such as the importance of boundary-making and keeping. One of these boundaries that we began to emphasise is the limitations of responsibility to “fix problems”, like the male volunteer who wanted to help a New Scot with his query about finding work.

The programme team has a standard list of notes to read at the beginning of volunteer events, a compilation of “Dos and Don’ts” when volunteering at New Scot events. For example, “Do show interest in their culture”; “Don’t take photos without permission”, etc. With the importance of boundaries in mind, I began to incorporate a new point: “Don’t be superhuman- be human”.3 What this means, I explain, is that volunteers are not expected to know the answers for every question, and that there are numerous professionals within the New Scot support ecosystem who are responsible for answering technical questions (e.g., job counsellors, doctors, lawyers, case workers, etc.).

In addition to the importance of maintaining good boundaries and not positioning oneself as an expert, we emphasise to volunteers the value of being a positive presence and compassionate listening. This form of dialogue is “characterized by openness, trust, presence, and an understanding of the other, that arises not from psychological compatibility but from shared humanity” (Hyde & Bineham, 2000, p. 212). In a recent training, we offered practical strategies for this, including listening without interrupting, showing visual cues to demonstrate listening, like nodding, and making eye contact (when culturally appropriate). As compassion entails feeling another’s suffering and a responsiveness to relieve it (Jazaieri et al., 2013), we stressed that a positive, attentive, and trust worthy presence is a powerful response in and of itself.

Concluding Thoughts

The role of churches and volunteers continues to be vital in the reception and integration of New Scots and will for the foreseeable future. Refugee-focused organisations that depend on the involvement of volunteers will need to continue to be proactive in their support of the wellbeing of volunteers, as the risks of burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are high. Simultaneously, efforts must be made to challenge “us and them” discourse and mentalities that can compound pre-existing stressors and weaken volunteer–New Scot relationships.

More research is needed regarding challenges and opportunities facing the mental health and wellbeing of volunteers working with refugees in the charity and nonprofit sector, in Scotland and beyond. Although there are growing numbers of forcibly displaced people being resettled around the world, there remains a paucity of reflections–both personal like this one and academic, that focus on the wellbeing of volunteers who commit time and energy supporting displaced individuals.

1Mollidor et al. (2015) provide an interesting study on the interrelation between religiosity, volunteering and wellbeing; a staff member in our programme has written a masters’ dissertation on churches’ conceptualisations of ‘hospitality’ and how it shapes community engagement among congregants (Newton, 2022).

2Refugees are not technically categorised as ‘vulnerable’ populations according to the UK Government.

3Kindly offered by Fiona Christie, one of our team members.

  References Top

Akintola O., Hlengwa W. M., Dageid W. (2013). Perceived stress and burnout among volunteer caregivers working in AIDS care in South Africa. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 69 (12), 2738–2749.  Back to cited text no. 1
Brown B. (2022). “Brené Brown with Chris Germer on the Near and Far Enemies of Fierce Compassion, Part 1 of 2”. Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Podcast. November 30.  Back to cited text no. 2
Buber M. (1970). I and Thou. Vol. 243. Simon and Schuster.  Back to cited text no. 3
Hyde B., Bineham J. (2000). From debate to dialogue: Toward a pedagogy of nonpolarized public discourse. Southern Communication Journal, 65(2 & 3), 208–222.  Back to cited text no. 4
Jaffe E., Sasson U., Knobler H., Aviel E., Goldberg A. (2012). Volunteers and the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 22 (3), 367–377.  Back to cited text no. 5
Jazaieri H., Jinpa G. T., McGonigal K., Rosenberg E. L., Finkelstein J., Simon-Thomas E., Cullen M., Doty J. R., Gross J. J., Goldin P. R. (2013). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14 (4), 1113–1126.  Back to cited text no. 6
Lum T. Y., Lightfoot E. (2005). The effects of volunteering on the physical and mental health of older people. Research on Aging, 27 (1), 31–55.  Back to cited text no. 7
Mellor D., Hayashi Y., Stokes M., Firth L., Lake L., Staples M., Chambers S., Cummins R. (2009). Volunteering and its relationship with personal and neighborhood well-being. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 38 (1), 144–159.  Back to cited text no. 8
Mollidor C., Hancock N., Pepper M. (2015). Volunteering, religiosity and well-being: Interrelationships among Australian churchgoers. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 18 (1), 20–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2014.1003169  Back to cited text no. 9
Morrice L. (2007). Lifelong learning and the social integration of refugees in the UK: The significance of social capital. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 26 (2), 155–172.  Back to cited text no. 10
Newton L. (2022). ‘I was a stranger and you invited me in: An exploration of Christian Hospitality and Churches as Development Actors’. Masters’ Dissertation, University of Edinburgh.  Back to cited text no. 11
Phillimore J. (2021). Refugee-integration-opportunity structures: Shifting the focus from refugees to context. Journal of Refugee Studies, 34 (2), 1946–1966.  Back to cited text no. 12
Russell A. R., Nyame-Mensah A., de Wit A., Handy F. (2019). Volunteering and wellbeing among ageing adults: A longitudinal analysis. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 30 (1), 115–128.  Back to cited text no. 13
Scottish Government. (2022). Universal Periodic Review 2022: Scottish Government Position Statement. Published 17 October, 2022. Accessed 5 January, 2023. Accessed at https://www.gov.scot/publications/universal-periodic-review-2022-scottish-government-position-statement/pages/14/#:∼:text=Scotland%20is%20currently%20providing%20sanctuary,the%20Scottish%20super%20sponsor%20scheme.  Back to cited text no. 14
Sheath D., Flahault A., Seybold J., Saso L. (2020). Diverse and complex challenges to migrant and refugee mental health: reflections of the M8 Alliance expert group on migrant health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 (10), 3530.  Back to cited text no. 15
Stanković B. (2018). Helpers, volunteers and vicarious trauma. Forced Migration and Social Trauma: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Psychoanalysis, Psychology, Sociology and Politics, 30.  Back to cited text no. 16
Strang A. B., Quinn N. (2021). Integration or isolation? Refugees’ social connections and wellbeing. Journal of Refugee Studies, 34 (1), 328–353.  Back to cited text no. 17


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