Making a difference for refugees – meet the founder of the life-changing Plymouth programme START

“What can I do to help?”


That’s the first thing that crossed Avril Bellinger’s mind at an International Women’s Day conference in 2001, when she heard from a local MP that Plymouth would soon be welcoming refugees.

As a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Plymouth – she’s now an Honorary Associate Professor – she arranged for some of her students to work alongside the new arrivals for their placement.

And little did she know what it would become.

“It was very informal in the first instance,” she said. “I mentioned it to some students and we wanted to be the friendly faces that these refugees saw in a world where they had hardly had any help at all.”

International Women's Day 2018 - Global Health Conference

From refugees to sustainability and back again - hear how women from the University of Plymouth are impacting around the world at this conference, organised by Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry.

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Avril found out that the only financial support the City Council received was to help children into schools, meaning social and community support were left to each family to source themselves.

So she encouraged her students to work with the refugees as their placement.
“It seemed like a mutually beneficial project,” Avril said. “But there was no official umbrella to run it under, so the charity Students and Refugees Together (START) was born. I remember we operated from a practice educator’s front room to begin with, and after 18 months with just one part-time member of staff – it was very small.”
Students completed their placements by working with refugee families, and their impact was notable.

For example, Mrs F, who spoke very little English, had complained consistently of stomach pain to the GP surgery, where some saw her as an 'attention-seeking nuisance'. The student’s perseverance in advocating for her right to translation provision resulted in an emergency examination and immediate admission to hospital for treatment of a neglected life-threatening infection.

Then in 2004, START received two large funding sources: a grant from the Big Lottery Fund and a contract to provide refugee housing support. These enabled them to take on more staff and fully empower the students and refugees within the service. Avril said:

“I was genuinely amazed – a small team of people were supporting refugees to settle in Plymouth and the far southwest, while providing innovative placement opportunities for students.”

The one stipulation that has remained throughout the process is that students remain the majority workforce, and students have travelled from institutions all over Europe to undertake their placement with the charity.

To help with community integration and providing a taste of home, the charity runs a Cultural Kitchen at Sherwell Church Hall twice a month.

Everyone is welcome, and students and service users prepare, serve and eat food together – with dishes from countries all over the world.

Olivia Collins, a medical student currently intercalating on the University’s MSc Global and Remote Healthcare, recently undertook a placement with START. She said: 

“The Cultural Kitchen is fantastic, dozens of people come along every fortnight and chat, play games, share stories and prepare food. I’d like to be a GP and I’m really interested in people. I’m also interested in the social determinants of health, as well as the importance of community and occupation for people’s wellbeing. This placement has been invaluable.”

Both Olivia and Avril will be sharing their experiences at the University of Plymouth International Women’s Day Global Health conference on 8 March. The event is open to the public and free of charge – visit the conference page for more details. 

Avril concluded:

“On one hand I can’t believe that a small idea has turned into a really successful charity that is still going 17 years later, but on the other hand it’s such a simple idea that is mutually beneficial and could be used with other groups too. Refugees are only a burden if you make them one, and having this support in place has helped hundreds of people transform their lives – students and refugees alike.”