Lawyer and volunteer at Refugees Welcome España
“Those who invite refugees into their homes have combated prejudices and stereotypes based on mere anecdotes”
TEXT: CRISTINA BISBAL IMAGES: LAURA MARTÍNEZ LOMBARDIA
It was nearly five years ago that she started collaborating with this association whose aim is to foster cohabitation experiences and a culture of welcoming refugees. Sandra’s work to achieve this is twofold. Firstly, when needed, she offers advice on the association’s legal questions. And she also interviews those seeking international protection, and those offering a room for a social rent. Those interested, both those who are looking for accommodation and those who offer it, they have had to previously register on the organization’s website. She tries to match them up according to their interests, characters and needs. Both sides are then introduced and, if they get along, they can begin living together in what is a two-way enriching experience. So far, since they began their work in 2015, Refugees Welcome España has arranged over 100 such cohabitations in Madrid, Barcelona, the Balearic Islands and Valencia. Moreover, they provide company and this can lead to great friendships, the kind that will last a lifetime.
How did your relationship with Refugees Welcome España start?
In the summer of 2015, the news media showed us the tremendous crisis of displaced persons striving to reach Europe as they fled wars, conflicts or persecution in their countries of origin. The founding partners of Refugees Welcome España started out at that time, as part of the International Refugees Welcome Network. About a year later, browsing the Web, I came across the association. I went to a training session. The founders showed such commitment and motivation to get this project off the ground, promoting a culture of welcome to Europe through ‘horizontal’ cohabitation, that I couldn’t resist.
Why this NGO and not another? What made you engage with Refugees Welcome España?
I was captivated by the promotion of this horizontal approach to the culture of welcome (opening our doors to living together, sharing different cultures, experiencing true integration and weaving citizen networks) with a solidarity rent.
Were you always interested in volunteering?
Yes, from a young age. Perhaps because I’d traveled around (as a little girl and, later, as a backpacker), which allowed me to get to know other cultures and their living and development conditions. Being born in certain places and times does not allow people to grow up in an environment of tolerance and equality.
On top of all this, you work in a law firm, have a house, two children (a boy and a girl of school age), a partner… Where do you find the time for the association?
I have no specific timetable. At Refugees Welcome España I work as a volunteer, like virtually all the other people there, and I devote more or less hours to it according to the needs at any given moment. Each week I tend to set aside some six or seven hours. I manage this by eking out some free time to do something I believe in. What’s more, my family respects those periods when I spend more time with the association.
There should not be any preconceived ‘image of refugees’, as we are talking about millions of people from all over the world, all with their own personal stories
What is the most rewarding aspect of the work you do for Refugees Welcome España?
Meeting wonderful people who devote their time to doing their bit to achieve change. It may not be a radical change, but the sum of all those grains of sand means some people can have a better life.
And the least, what hurts you the most?
How complicated it is to integrate into our society all those seeking inclusion. Overcoming the lack of awareness and combating prejudices, the lack of resources and how hard it is for public bodies at the European, national and local levels to reach viable agreements. And, in particular, being unable to assist all the people knocking on our door.
What is the profile of the people who turn to you?
They are usually young people aged 20 to 35 who have traveled alone from countries like Syria, Palestine, Ukraine, Venezuela, Colombia, Central American countries and several African countries such as Somalia or Mali, among others. They are fleeing their countries of origin because of armed conflict, violence, discrimination or persecution on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. Most of them are within the asylum seeker Reception System, i.e. they have applied for International Protection. We usually accompany them in the second phase of the Reception System, actively seeking a new home, when they have to abandon the premises run by the NGO in question and get their life back on track.
And how do they find out about you?
We collaborate with other NGOs administering the economic support in Phase 2 of the Reception System, and have developed synergies and referral processes with most of the pertinent entities in the cities where we are present, so as to ensure we can be a viable, effective resource. On other occasions, displaced persons who know us or have formed part of the project at some point recommend us to other refugees. There are also those who come across us through basic Internet searches.
Tell me about some case that particularly moved you, or was an especially lovely or intense experience.
There really are so many. The generosity and values of the people who register their room on our website to rent it out, which results in someone moving in, is always thrilling. There are two really lovely examples in Madrid. Mayte, who lives with her daughters and a dog, has expressed her solidarity twice by renting out a room to women of different ages and situations. Or César, a pensioner who, since 2017, has shared his home with displaced persons. One of them has lived with him for over two years.
How has this experience been for those who take people in?
Highly satisfactory. Some people have tackled their loneliness, or seen their table enriched with new dishes, virtually traveled the world from their sofa and practiced foreign languages. But, above all, they’ve combated prejudices and stereotypes based on mere anecdotes.
I understand that a personal relationship is forged with some of these refugees, by you volunteers as well…
Yes, indeed. Aya (in the photo) is one of those cases. We’ve become great friends. She says I’m a bit like her elder sister. She’s met my family and we’ve been for walks and meals together.
Are we sufficiently aware in our country of the displaced persons issue?
In my opinion, there’s a long way to go yet, at both the social and institutional level. The figures of those denied international protection speak for themselves: In 2019, Spain offered international protection to a mere 5.2 percent of the asylum applications processed, in sharp contrast to 24 percent in 2018 and the 31 percent average for all European Union countries last year.
How should we change the image we hold of displaced people?
We must learn about them, educate in our schools, empathize (it shouldn’t be difficult, as a were a country of emigrants), read and discover, call out racist attitudes and behavior we witness around us, avoid falling into the trap of sensationalism or false data spread by the media, or holding preconceived images of anyone. Indeed, there should not be any preconceived ‘image of refugees’, as we are talking about millions of people from all over the world, all with their own personal stories. Because, beyond the social and moral aspects, simply from an economic standpoint, immigration is not only good, it is necessary.
How do you finance yourselves?
A great deal of the work is achieved by the time we volunteers invest. There are approximately 70 of us, working with a common goal in different territories: Madrid, Catalonia, Balearic Islands, Galicia and Murcia. In addition, we have five specialists, each one hired thanks to funding from a town hall in Catalonia, as well as from two private entities. We occasionally receive donations from individuals or through event promotions. This helps us maintain the structure and professionalize some services, without losing our activist roots.