London , United Kingdom

Time Together: Mentoring for Daily Life


June 26, 2009

Matching ordinary citizens to ordinary acts promotes refugee integration through friendship

Before moving to the UK from Afghanistan Lylla had never used an escalator before, was unfamiliar with the idea of public parks and was understandably overwhelmed by the London tube.

Moving to a new country usually means a mix of anticipation for the possibility of a new life and adventures, as well as anxiety at the host of challenges that it raises.  These emotions are experienced even more intensely when you are fleeing to a new country as a refugee.

And often, as with Lylla and the escalator, it is the day to day challenges and unfamiliarities, that tend to be overlooked by many settlement and support services but which can often be even more isolating and difficult for newly arrived refugees.

Time Together, a volunteer refugee mentoring initiative aims to address these often overlooked challenges associated with integration, as well as the practical issues of English language and employment seeking. After Lylla registered with Time Together, she was matched with Laura who helped her use the London Underground for the first time and took her around to the local attractions such as museums. Laura, an English teacher, had decided to become a mentor in response to the negative media portrayal of refugees. With Laura’s support, Lylla soon felt confident to visit local parks and explore the city on her own.

Translating Policy to Practice

The impetus for the Time Together programme emerged from a recommendation from Home Office, the government department in charge of immigration; that mentoring could assist in the integration of refugees in the UK. Evidence showed that a person’s ability to adapt to a new environment is greatly increased by having a patient companion with local knowledge,  who takes an interest in the life of a refugee, and who is dedicated to providing support and advice. The recommendation further stated that mentoring and befriending schemes illustrated how integration works as a two-way process – both refugee and host community have a role in the relationship, contributing towards stronger, more socially inclusive communities.

Time Together had identified nine dimensions of integration to highlight in the mentoring process: confidence, English language, employment, education, isolation, UK culture, becoming familiar with the local area, volunteering, and access to services. Each of these dimensions may affect people differently, depending on their previous national context, personality, expectations and needs. Broadly, the mentoring process is often about building confidence to access goods and services, and both trying and persevering with new opportunities.

Building Supportive Partnerships

All programme participants undergo a process to ensure that the mentoring match will be positive and sustained. First both potential mentors and mentees undergo training separately depending on their role in the pair, which can cover concepts of integration, refugee issues, and the essentials to mentoring. It is at this stage that people in the programme also become familiar with the mutual commitments of mentors, mentees and the programme coordinator. After training, potential pairs are introduced in a group environment, have the chance to read their partners written profiles of interests and skills, and also hear from the coordinator about each person’s needs and expectations in the relationship. So for example, Lylla would have already known that Laura was an English teacher, and Laura would have already known that Lylla wanted to be able to practise English with a patient native speaker. The coordinator’s role in the relationship is important even after the matching stage as they help to keep the pair motivated and committed to the arrangement, support the pair through possible challenges and if necessary, intervene if the pair doesn’t hit it off.

One mentor who underwent the process was empathetic to the aims of the scheme, “I know how much I appreciated it when people in the country I was travelling in took the time to talk to me and welcome me to their country. I wanted to offer the same experience to someone coming to the UK.” With her mentee, she had improved her French language comprehension and learned about African culture and cuisine.

Integration in Action

In an independent assessment of Time Together, the impact of this relationship-based mentoring initiative was found to have a highly positive impact on the integration of refugees. Out of the study sample of thirty mentors and mentees, twenty-two of the mentors had successfully enhanced the integration of their mentees. This was judged through the help and advice they offered on practical matters concerning everyday life in Britain, building and sustaining confidence in their mentees, and contributing to their mentee’s English language improvement. Furthermore, seven of the twenty-two mentors reported life-altering experiences, which often formed the basis of strong, mutually-beneficial friendships.

After three years of running the programme, TimeBank received funding in 2005 from the Home Office and HM Treasury Invest to expand the Time Together programme nationwide. There are now 24 projects running across the UK managed and supported by a central team based at TimeBank, the charity running the Time Together programme, in partnership with local organizations. Since the beginning of the programme seven years ago, over 2,500 refugees have been matched with mentors.

Making it Work for You:

  • Good coordination: for matching the pairs' expectations and needs, helping the mentor with challenging situations, and maintaining the pair's motivation to meet
  • No progress is too small: Measuring impacts of mentoring or integration can be difficult. Sometimes all someone needs is the assurance someone else is there for them.
  • Recruiting local: advertise mentoring schemes in local public spaces and information points where community-minded individuals already turn to, such as libraries, schools, and newspapers