Supporting the Roma community in a pandemic

Published in Features on 30 Apr 2020
Sorana Goga
Sorana Goga

Andreea Bocioaga, Information Specialist at Iriss has a conversation with Sorana Goga, Community Development Worker at Govanhill Housing Association. Sorana is also an interpreter who supports Roma people where language can be a real barrier to communication. 

Sorana speaks about the challenges posed by COVID-19 for the Roma community and the work she’s doing to support it. This conversation took place on 24 April 2020.

Andreea Bocioaga (AB): Thank you for agreeing to speak to us today. I just want to start by asking you to tell us a bit about who you are and what you do in your day to day job.

Sorana Goga: So my name is Sorana and my full job title is ‘(Romanian speaking) Community Development Worker’. I work for the Govanhill Community Development Trust, which is a subsidiary of the Govanhill Housing Association. We largely work in Govanhill and my work is with Romanian families from the Govanhill community. Many of them are of Roma ethnicity, so it's helping these families with a range of needs.

AB: And what would you say is the current situation at your work?

SG: Because of the specific traits of our demographic – the people we're working with – there's been a series of quite particular obstacles resulting from the COVID pandemic. I think obviously it's affecting everyone significantly and in different ways, but the Romanian Roma community that we are working with has issues with language barriers and literacy and obtaining accurate information. They are also often living in poverty or close to poverty, and in housing conditions or work conditions that are not very stable. 

Because of all of these factors, the pandemic hit pretty hard so we've seen a huge increase in the numbers of people returning to Romania. Partly because they're scared – even up to this point the numbers of people contracting COVID-19 and dying of it are much, much higher in the UK than there are in Romania. Romania only passed 500 deaths, a day or two ago, whereas here it was in the tens of thousands. So I think that the coverage of this is making people feel like here (UK) is not as safe as they would be at home. This may be misguided, but is a very hard feeling to dispel, particularly given that people don't speak the language and they don't really watch the news – they don't really watch any of the daily briefings to get accurate up-to-date information. And they're exposed to a lot of misinformation and a lot of bad science around this on Facebook. So because of this generalised climate of fear and also because of more logistical issues surrounding their income and wages, a lot of people just weren't able to keep living here and to keep paying rent. People have been getting scared about falling behind on their rent by a couple of months, so a lot of people have gone home. 

Throughout all of this we have tried to support people, we've made videos in Romanian that give them as accurate information as we could and we’re trying to support the families that are staying here – to help them with benefits that are still ongoing or claim new benefits that have sort of popped up in support of COVID-19.

AB: How would you say your working life looks now compared to last month?

SG: So everything that we did was face-to-face and we were able to do a lot of home visits for different things. For example, if people had literacy issues or if there were families with mobility issues or anything like that, we'd be at Samaritan House and I’d see people face-to-face. Because of the issues surrounding literacy and languages that I was describing, a lot of the time I had to fill out documents for people who were not able to fill them out themselves, or help them fill out forms either online or claim Universal Credit online. Many people aren't able to do this, so we were able to assist them with things like that and that is a huge limitation now. That's something that we're just point-blank not able to do anymore. Our team of Romanian and Slovakian speakers and some other workers are working from home and we are trying to do everything, including welfare – we're still trying to do everything that's possible to do online. For example, the new Universal Credit benefits are much easier to apply for online or to make changes to online. We are able to do that remotely. For people who are having any issues with older benefits such as child benefits or tax credits or housing benefits, those offices operate by sending letters, so we're not able to help anyone fill those out and interpret for them in the meantime. So that's definitely been more difficult. 

The other thing is an emotional factor to it, or just the seriousness of the challenges faced. We work with a really disadvantaged community, so I'm used to people coming to me with their problems and, you know, having quite emotionally intense or sad interactions throughout my working week. Definitely the instances of these have gone up hugely, including a few deaths that we've had in the community from the virus and a lot of fear around it. So during the day it's much more likely that in the phone calls and video calls either over the phone or on Facebook, even if someone is coming with a general problem such as benefits, filling out a form, reading a letter that they've received or discussions about travel or questions about the situation (COVID-19), people will end up offloading on me about a lot of their other problems. I think the emotional cost is a little higher than we were used to before.

Certainly the particular work around funerals and families losing loved ones – that we're having to help with registering deaths. That's something, for example, that I hadn't done right up until three weeks ago and could quite happily not do. I know I have to help because there's no one else, so that's been quite difficult and quite a significant change.

AB: You mentioned you had to deal with registering people's deaths. Do you mind talking a bit more about that if it's not too sensitive?

SG: No, it's okay. So, there's a few things, right,... it's very complicated the paperwork process of dying and registering a death. It's also very expensive, which is not something that you think about very much or families think about. Glasgow City Council is currently operating a very reduced service and part of the service they are offering is related to death registration. When someone passes away in hospitals, there used to be a much more straightforward process beforehand. The informant or family member were able to go to a help desk, give details of their loved ones, previous marriages or previous names and things like this. Then they would be able to sign the form and that would be the death registered almost on the spot; they’d be given a death certificate quite rapidly. This is not able to happen anymore. All the registrars are working remotely and everything is happening digitally, which obviously poses some problems for people who aren’t digitally literate. Also, it's not always clear who the doctor was, given that the families aren't able to be in hospital with their loved ones because of the new regulations, so it's not clear who the doctor is, who has to sign the certificate; it’s unclear which council it’s gone to. Today for example, the death of a man who lived in Govanhill was registered in East Renfrewshire, which is not necessarily the correct way to do it. I don't think it's going to be a problem, but it just creates issues in tracing. So that's quite difficult. 

The majority of these families wanted to repatriate their loved ones, and this is not something that people have had to do, I think, in Glasgow and certainly at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. So there was initially a lot of uncertainty about whether or not they would be able to repatriate someone who had died of COVID-19, what paperwork was required and what certificates had to be obtained. And there was no one really who knew all of this. It’s really new for everyone involved. Securing some real information on all the moving parts has been quite difficult. But after having done it now for three families I have the very dubious distinction of knowing more about it and being able to help people with it more effectively.

AB: That sounds like it's a very intense emotional experience. Would you say there have been any positive signs of the crisis at all?

SG: So we’ve a few thousand clients in total. There's a few thousand Romanian people living in Govanhill, so obviously quite a lot of people in a small area. And despite the fact that they're really scared and that there is a lot of misinformation out there and people were worried about their loved ones, the one positive and heartening thing is that we saw that we had the trust of the community – that if we were trying to get a message across, it worked out well. So we were able to disseminate information both about the lockdown and about the quarantine to people. We were able to communicate information about self-isolation and what to do if someone was displaying symptoms. We were able to publicise information regarding developing travel restrictions to Romania and from Romania, and new issues from the Romanian consulate in Edinburgh. I've been in this job for four years and the Govanhill people know me, they know my face and my colleagues’ faces and they trust us. It's been a big positive that we are actually able to impact some change in terms of all the panic that people were having and settle a lot of their fears.

Another thing has been, again, surrounding all of these different myths that float around regarding vaccinations and the way the virus is transmitted and all kinds of fears. For example, a fear that the virus is being transmitted through water. So people started buying bottled water, which we were desperately trying to tell them not to spend their money on because they didn't have very much of it. So it's been good to see that people listen to us. 

And I think the other thing that was good too was that we reacted quite quickly in going online and we managed to find a way to deal with people that we couldn't see face-to-face anymore. We put all of our profiles on Facebook and reacted to the situation that way. Because the community uses Facebook a lot and people are very connected by word of mouth it did mean that lots of people found out where we were and how they could find us. And that was really good. And one thing that's come out and I think probably, not just in Govanhill, but probably generally in the country has been a lot of impromptu partnership work. Where before it would be maybe more difficult, you'd have to organise a few meetings to get something together with a partner agency there's saying things like,
‘You know, are you doing food deliveries?’ 
‘Can you go to this family?’ 
‘Are you doing fuel payments or fuel vouchers?’ 
‘Can you go to this family?’ 

So it’s been a lot more impromptu, and developing the videos and discussing content that we wanted to include in the videos and trying to get that message to be the same across organisations has just been a lot easier than it was before and has required less logistics. So there’s been good parts about it.

AB: And I was wondering if you've thought about any long-term implications that this might have on your job or for your role specifically.

SG: Yeah, I think about that a lot. It's not a particularly cheery thing to think about, unfortunately. So I have a few worries when I'm thinking about long-term implications that are not particularly positive. So I guess the chief things that I'm concerned I was saying, I've been doing the job for four years, but the job's been in place for about six and the Trust has been in place for a few more than that. So over the past six years, many more have been trying to help the Romanian community, the Slovakian community and new arrivals coming to Govanhill or to Glasgow. Most of them are coming because they were not able to make any sort of living for themselves in Romania or were living below the poverty line. We’re trying to help people secure more stable livelihoods and better employment and to obtain higher literacy rates and make sure more of them reach the higher education system. Eventually we were hoping to see and already starting to see examples of children making it through secondary school, which is not often the case for Roma Romanian children in the Romanian education system – trying to obtain better outcomes for themselves, hoping that later on they could be examples for their community in diversity of outcomes.

So a lot of things we were hoping for in terms of long-term development of the community and long-term integration. We feel a lot of that has been shaken by the fact that families have left, given that in the short-term, they couldn't stay here. I think a lot of people are planning to return, but it is a question of whether they will be able to. From a financial point of view, they will have lost their tenancies, lost the jobs that they had. If they're trying to return within a few months and if they have children, whether or not they still have the same school places is up in the air. They will have to re-apply for their benefits all over and just the fact that it feels like a lot of work we've done for a lot of families has just been erased with a big sponge. That's quite disheartening and demoralising.

Assuming that you could just kind of bite that bullet and just keep doing the work with the same families, I think another issue is the fact that not everyone had managed up until now to go through the European Settlement Scheme. So if people don't have settled status or pre-settled status by the time they leave, I don't know what the situation is going to be if they’re trying to come back to the country. Even though they had been living here for however many years, if they don't have anything to prove that, I don't know how generous the Home Office is going to be with allowing people back into the country to try and resume their livelihoods. So they are my main worries.

AB: And what would you like to see happen to improve support and I guess tackle some of these future challenges?

SG: One thing that springs to mind is that it feels that a lot of organisations have been able to change the ways they're working because they've been forced to. They can accommodate telephone calls and video calls and such like. I feel that there are still some roadblocks that are not necessary for benefits organisations or the like and that it's difficult to help someone access a service when maybe it shouldn't be this difficult and it could be more streamlined. For example, the fact that we still have one benefits system that is completely pretty much post and telephone based – that we're not allowed to carry out phone calls with advisors from, for example, tax credits on behalf of a client, even assuming that we would have a mandate in the name of that client. It just leaves us in a really impossible situation of not being able to help someone if you can't reach them physically, which is obviously what we're seeing in the current situation. This is just an example. But I think looking at the situation generally, I would like to see more of a loosening and a more of a case-by-case approach around how things can get out and how things can get resolved. I think we've seen a lot of innovation in the way that organisations are carrying out their services. So it would be good to see that carry through, maybe in a broader sense. I would also like to see more compassionate measures being extended by the government. I feel that because it's an emergency situation, some rules and regulations have been put in place in the short-term that could be very fair, longer-term regulations. As a self-employed person working right now, for example, you can claim Universal Credit and you no longer have a minimum income threshold imposed on you. What this meant previously is that some of my families who were working as self-employed people were being told that they're earnings get calculated as if they were earning at least twelve hundred pounds a month when this is not the case. Under the new regulations this figure has been temporarily removed so that the actual earnings can be reported and the sum can be calculated. So something like this feels a little bit common sense and more compassionate. I would like to see that being used in the future. But to be honest, even just the idea of returning to normal is quite hopeful and quite nice at this time.

AB: I just wanted to close by asking about your experience of interpreting during a pandemic. What's that like?

SG: That's been an interesting part because I probably did a lot more interpreting in my work before the pandemic. A lot of the stuff that I've used an interpreter for, I just carry out myself because I'm now able to do it, unless it’s quite complicated matters regarding welfare for example. But I was doing a lot more interpreting for colleagues and for housing issues or law centres before the pandemic.

Now it's pretty much just me and the clients on the phone. The only instances where I've had to do interpreting have been some of the most difficult ones, which was, for example, the death registrations where the registrar had to be on a three-way call with myself and the informant who was telling us about the death. It was quite difficult with three people on three different phones speaking at the same time. Trying to get quite sensitive information from a person in a really difficult situation is tough, but also interesting. I feel like it requires a little more concentration.

I’ve also interpreted interviews with people to share their experiences of the pandemic. And that's been quite difficult too. So by and large, I find it a lot more demanding, a lot more complicated technologically and in other ways. I try to limit the amount of interpreting that has to happen, I much prefer to do things as straightforward as possible.

AB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SG: This is a very interesting time in our work. Quite fascinating. I always knew I had quite a people-facing job, but I didn't realise quite how frontline it was. And it's interesting to be exposed to that reality now, because a lot of people in our organisation have no ability to do their jobs at all – they either have been furloughed or are in process of being or trying to find new descriptions for their jobs and things like that. We’re pretty much able to fill out more than a day of work every day. It's been quite fascinating and it's hard not to be a little resentful at what you're having to get out there. But it is also massively rewarding.

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