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RYVU: Meet Dr Sarah Mills, Loughborough University

20th June 2022

Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda (RYVU) is an international research project looking at how volunteering affects skills, employability and inequalities experienced by young refugees in Uganda.

The project is led by Northumbria University in collaboration with Loughborough University, Uganda Martyrs University and Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda.

To mark Refugee Week 2022, we’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with members of the research team and find out about their contribution to the study, which has explored the relationship between volunteering and livelihoods for young refugees.

Please tell us about yourself, your research interests and how you became involved with the RYVU project.

Caption: Dr Sarah Mills, Loughborough UniversityI’m a Reader in Human Geography based at Loughborough University. I research the geographies of youth citizenship and volunteering. I was invited to join the RYVU team based at Northumbria and with our Ugandan partners. I have thoroughly enjoyed the past three years working on a multi-disciplinary and international project to better understand the lives of young refugees and their voluntary action.

Outline your contribution to the research, what you have learned about the importance of support networks for young refugees facing crisis, and the human ability to heal.

My contribution has been supporting the whole team with our academic literature engagement and contributions to knowledge, as well as supporting and mentoring the amazing Postdoctoral Research Assistants on the project with their fieldwork in Uganda and feeding into all stages of our research design and analysis. I was lucky enough to visit Uganda at the beginning of the project to contribute to a series of workshops with stakeholders, and our work with them and our youth advisory board has continued throughout the project.

I have learned a huge amount about the lives and livelihoods of young refugees in Uganda. Our unique data-set – particularly the large-scale survey and our photo-voice activities with young refugees – captures a range of volunteering experiences. It is clear there are both benefits and challenges to volunteering in these spaces and contexts, and we hope the RYVU data will not only generate new knowledge on academic debates but shape policy recommendations too.

Tell us how the young refugees involved in this research foster new friendships and connections after facing such trauma, and the role volunteer work can play in supporting them to rebuild their lives.

Our research found that volunteering is important to young refugees as a way of making friends, especially those types of volunteering that were more refugee-led and became part of their everyday lives. It is clear that volunteering has helped refugees to build and rebuild their lives in a new context.  Indeed, there are examples in our project where volunteering has helped communities and refugees to cope and survive in new environments. We also found that the networks and relationships gained through volunteering can help sustain wider livelihoods, but that there still remain challenges around access and inequalities for some refugees.

What is the most important thing you feel we can all learn from this research?

So often, discussions about young people, and especially young refugees, focus on what they are seen to lack, or need to learn, and they are often framed as burdens to societies. What RYVU does is flip this on its head and show the contributions made by young refugees to their local communities and beyond, which has wider relevance for debates on youth volunteering around the globe. It powerfully captures the voices of young refugees themselves, and listening to those voices is something we can all learn from this research.

How would you like to see the RYVU project facilitate change for the better?

My hope is that the RYVU project shows the huge scale of volunteering activity and levels of participation by young refugees in Uganda, but that it also improves the experiences of these young volunteers on the ground, and gives them more stability and security in those volunteering opportunities. Furthermore, I hope that volunteering opportunities become more accessible to all young refugees.

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