Respect and dignity
Treating others as you’d like to be treated is an excellent principle, but is the person you’d like to help in a situation that you’ve been in before? Do you know how they’d like to be treated?
If you have young children then you might have some ideas of how to help new parents coping with a newborn baby. If you’re experienced at work then you will have ideas about how to help someone new who joins your business.
But if you’ve never been homeless, or elderly, or suffered from a mental illness, or immigrated to a new country, then it will be harder to guess what assistance you can provide.
Forcing your help on others can be taken the wrong way. At work, a colleague was left confused and upset after she’d bought a sandwich for a homeless man and he didn’t accept it. Another homeless man told me that a nice woman had just bought him his third cup of coffee for the morning, while he was selling the Big Issue outside a cafe. He wasn’t complaining as such, but three coffees is a lot and he would have preferred to sell more magazines to support himself.
These are two examples where good people have tried to help others, and I hope they continue to do so. But it’s important to recognise and respect the agency of others and offer them the dignity of choosing what help they might like.
How to offer help
Asking for help is difficult, even when we need it most. Proactively offering to help can be a powerful way to connect with someone. When offering help, frame the question with a suggestion of what you have in mind.
“I’m just going into this shop, can I buy you something to eat or drink?”
“Would you like me to send you some books, or perhaps visit more often?”
“Can I come over and look after your baby for an hour or two, or bring you some dinner?”
What help can you provide?
Sometimes all that’s needed is a friendly face and good listening skills. I’ve met refugees who need a specialist doctor, translator or lawyer, and I’m none of the above. What I offer is my time, friendship, and local knowledge. I can research support services, make some calls and send emails reaching out to others who may be willing to get involved. I support others who are new to visiting detention centres, so that refugees can have a friendly local supporting them. None of this is expensive or requires special training, I’m simply using some of my spare time to supplement the great work being done by other volunteers. And you can too.
At the end of the day, honest intentions will cover a lot of accidental missteps. Start by connecting with the person, and finding out if there’s a way you can help.