Case study: Students and Refugees Together (START)

Blending Practical Support and Social Activities to Welcome Refugees

Introducing START

Refugees escape terrible circumstances, and the society they enter, whether the UK or elsewhere, is probably unfamiliar and complex, and often hostile. Refugees are also likely to arrive without strong family, friendship or other support networks. It seems clear that meaningful relationships are vital, even a literal lifeline, for refugees. This is demonstrated in academic research, such as that produced at the University of Birmingham and City University.

Students and Refugees Together (START) enlists students to help deliver a range of services and social activities to help refugees learn skills, meet friends and feel at home in Plymouth. START was recently recognised as one of Nesta’s 2018 Good Help finalists.

(If you are interested in organisations supporting refugees, we encourage you to also read our case study on Migrateful)

How does START work?

START aims to help refugees become confident, self-reliant members of the local community. It does this through a combination of practical services and social activities delivered by a core staff team, community partners, volunteers and placement students from social work, occupational therapy, clinical psychology and other disciplines:

1. One-to-one support sessions

Support is varied, and tailored according to refugees’ individual needs and skills. In 2016/17, START case workers worked on 199 long-term cases over 10,206 hours, and supported 193 individual people through 746 drop-in sessions.

2. Job Club

This consists of weekly employability sessions on topics like interview preparation, CV writing and IT skills. 236 refugees attended 51 Job Club sessions in 2016/17, with an average of 51 people per session.

3. Social activities
  • Women’s Creative Group provides a safe place for women to meet and discuss issues of importance to them and their families.
  • The START Allotment offers community gardening opportunities and a space to socialise and relax. It also provides food for …
  • The Cultural Kitchen: a weekly dinner club for refugees, asylum seekers, volunteers, staff and partners to gather to eat, socialise, play games and participate in cultural exchange. 60-80 people typically attend each week.
  • START Walks similarly bring refugees and asylum seekers together with other community members to enjoy the outdoors and socialise.

START’s approach is based on the belief, as Founder and Chair Avril Bellinger writes, that “most people value those things that cannot be given a price tag: community; kindness; mutual support; curiosity and learning and above all the recognition that we are all part of the same human race.” This explains why START prioritises social activities as well as practical support.

START also follows other relationship-centred principles. As its Brief History explains, START adopts a “strengths approach” which, whilst not ignoring problems, focuses on refugees’ potential. START sees refugees not as problems, but as valued, welcomed community members. START’s approach is also holistic and needs-led, meaning its services are tailored to people’s individual choices and needs, rather than being prescribed according to preconceived ideas or external pressures like funding.

What impact is START having?

Of the refugees that START worked with in 2016/17: 


are able to get the support that they need, when they need it


feel they have friends and a community in Plymouth


would recommend START to a friend


feel happy in Plymouth


found solutions to issues through one-to-one sessions

What can we learn from START?

A few things stand out to us about the way START works:

Good relationships are mutually beneficial, and allow agency for everybody involved

Refugees are disempowered in many ways, but START shows that mutual relationships founded on agency and trust offer one route towards re-empowerment. START’s support services begin with refugees’ personal needs and preferences; refugees shape the service provided. START also encourages refugees to contribute to the community through volunteering at Job Club sessions, cooking meals, tending gardenings and other social activities.

Different relationships serve different purposes

START’s varied activities recognise this. Its one-to-one support, for example, focuses largely (although not exclusively) on instrumental support, whereas the Women’s Creative Group focuses more on emotional support.

Learning represents an excellent framework for building relationships

Whether as formal services or relaxed activities, learning new skills can bring people together to share and develop together.

Welcoming spaces are required for relationships to grow – especially to people who are unfamiliar with an environment

START provides a welcoming environment for refugees, and the physical spaces it offers are crucial to this. The communal kitchen, for example, offers a space for people to connect in a relaxed environment, as does START’s allotment. In a broader sense, START Walks take advantage of the surrounding landscape as a relaxed environment in which to connect. As one refugee says in START’s summary video: “START is just like home for people – it’s the best place to be.”

Want to know more?

What’s next for START?

START continues its hard work supporting refugees whilst remaining financially sustainable with a small core team.

Further reading