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Face to Face


I work in a mental health street service in one of the most deprived and diverse areas of Bristol City.

We offer groups, 1:1s and have a policy of inviting in and talking to people who just ring the buzzer.

Yesterday, two Afghanistan men asked to talk to someone and so I went to meet them.

I deliver ‘unconscious bias’ training and advocate the use of ‘beginners mind’ to try to overcome prejudice and bias and just see a person in front of you as having needs that you may be able to meet.  So, I try to practice what I preach but when the men said they were from Afghanistan and one was an asylum seeker, my mind filled with all my prior knowledge about their country and wondered what these men in front of me had already experienced.  I could not practice beginners mind and my heart quietly went out to him.

The younger man (S) did the all the talking. He explained that he had very recently met the older man (H) and their bond was speaking their common experiences, speaking  same language and discovering that their fathers at home knew each other. However, the young man (he was 26 he told me, living half his life in Afghanistan and the last 13 years in the UK) was just helping the other man out.

The older man had such an aura of sadness around him and looked to the other man for translation of our conversation.  He was much older (or maybe had aged beyond his years), was the father of a 10 year old boy and had a wife still in Afghanistan.

The story unfolded. He had been in the UK for 4 years, his son had been taken from him by a ‘support worker’ who had not told him where he was.  They had told this man that the son did not want to see him.  The father had no contact details for the worker and no explanation had been given to him.

The younger man explained that this was literally driving H mad.  H was again homeless as the hostel which had been offered to him for a while had told him to leave. He had nothing, no one and little support. He had tried seeking help from the overburdened, hugely under resourced refugee support charity service. He had not been offered any legal advice. He didn’t know where to go or who to ask for help.  He had recently had a heart attack and did get free treatment on the NHS (this isn’t always the case).

I explained that we were a small service, that we could offer someone to talk to, to share his feelings with and maybe help him to feel stronger.  On the positive side, we could signpost him to other services but could not guarantee that we would have any influence. I told him that finding interpreters and paying for them was a problem as their language was uncommon.  When we pay for interpreters (around £30 an hour), we cannot claim that money back.

I asked S if he would be willing/ available to interpret for him.  He agreed and so then asked H if he would be comfortable talking to him to translate for the therapist.  He was fine with this.   I took both mobile phone numbers and said that we would offer an appointment soon. I completed an initial assessment form and put it in the file alongside the Pakistani woman who is dangerously thin, who left her husband, supports two children and didn’t know about Universal credit. She has a damaged arm and hand from an injury that appears to have not been treated. She was trying to get any job cleaning- with just one arm. This file was on top of another of a woman from West Africa who had been abused by the people who said they would help her. A very common story. These clients all pressed our buzzer and asked for help.

We are a ‘litmus paper’ for what is happening with support services. When we have cases like this, we know another door has closed on an essential service or funding been withdrawn or lost.  We get no funding from the council but continually bid for grants by trusts.  We don’t turn people away.

I can still see the older mans face in my mind. It haunts me.  It was like a map of his pain, his shame and his hopelessness.

I felt anger and shame for our government, the council and what looks horribly like our complete absence of compassion for humanity.  If this man had come to my front door and told his story, could I have sent him away to carry on searching alone? 

Lidls later:

I parked my car to shop at Lidls, near where I work, I saw a white man huddled in a blanket, just beyond the trolleys on the edge of the entrance to the store.  I then watched a young black man approach him and hand over a wrapper of chocolate bars and the man thanked him.  When I approached, I asked if I could get him a sandwich or anything. He replied very quickly ‘yes please, cheese and onion’.  I went in to do my shop but was now distracted. I was thinking that the man in  the blanket would need lots of protein, carbohydrate and vitamins to stay healthy in the cold and wet.  I searched out ready to eat items, to keep him going until the next time he sat in a shop doorway.

When I returned, I spilled out my meagre range of goods to sustain him.  He was very grateful, spoke with a middle class accent and was ‘well groomed’. 

I decided that he was new to this.  I imagined the likely scenarios- lost a job, lost a partner, been in the criminal justice system, has a dependence, waiting for Universal credits and lost his home etc. etc. 

The night shelters in Bristol are over run. Not everyone can get a bed, not everyone knows where to ask.  I didn’t ask him where he was going to sleep that night. I sometimes do- but I had no numbers on me to ring on hi behalf. I have promised myself that I will find these, put them on my phone and be more helpful next time.

When I drove away with all the shopping I wanted in my boot, the man in the blanket watched me leave, smiled broadly and gestured a thank you.  The tears were already running down my cheeks. It was starting to rain again and I wondered where he would spend the night and how cold, wet and miserable that would be.

I felt anger. That all I could do was to buy him a sandwich, that I didn’t stop to hear his story, that I didn’t have numbers on me to ring to see if I could help. 

I saw many people half glance at him and walk past. I am not judging them, these encounters cause discomfort, fear, disgust, assumptions or judgements.  I am frustrated by ‘us’ , those in our society who do not reflect and act- for the flourishing of humanity.

 If someone collapses in the street, we immediately stop to help and wait until help comes. This man had metaphorically collapsed in the street but we walk on by.

For me, it is very different to the statistics, the rhetoric, the reports and the photos when you are privileged enough to have experience first-hand of the face to face reality of pain and suffering that is actually all around us but maybe we choose not to see.


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