The Big Society – this government’s idea for communities to take on more responsibility, become more involved – is nothing new for east Manchester. Across the area dozens of community groups run by enthusiastic volunteers have been established for years. Len Grant meets Methode Nguimby from the African Francophone Integration Project.
Methode leads me into the office of the African Francophone Integration Project (AFIP) in a building on Bosworth Street in Beswick previously occupied by the Manchester Settlement. They share the premises with a community cafe which this morning is busy serving a late breakfast to a handful of local residents.
Methode is keen to tell me all about the project and how it helps French-speaking asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants who live in, or have just moved to, Manchester.
“Many people arriving here are stressed and disoriented,” he says. “They don’t know the language, have often been given misleading information about what help is available and need some friendly support. The AFIP can give free advice on housing, health, education, benefits and employment as well as encouraging integration with British society, often through music and the arts.”
The emphasis is to get people off benefits and into work. If they are able to work, and currently those claiming asylum are not allowed to earn an income, then Methode and his team help find them a temporary job, maybe cleaning or packing as an introduction to the employment market.
“To begin with this ‘small job’ helps newcomers with the language and builds their confidence. Then we work together on a CV and help them apply for a permanent job with perhaps a retail company.
“For those who are more highly educated we suggest they continue their studies at college. Often qualifications gained back home are not recognised here and our clients have to retrain.”
After only a short while in Methode’s company I can see that he is a very committed individual, happy to spend his energies helping others. But what of him? I’m keen to know more about the man who started this organisation out of his bedroom seven years ago.
Back home in the Republic of Congo he was a hardworking young man who studied history at university. Being a politically active student in a volatile country was not safe and he fled to Britain in 1996 when he was just 18 with not a word of English.
Living in London, he took a number of low paid jobs whilst he learnt English at the local college. “But London was expensive,” he says, “and a friend of mine suggested I try Manchester. At the time I was working as a customer service assistant on the trains and I was easily able to keep my job but be based in a different city. So I came to Manchester.”
Knowing no-one but having saved a little money Methode was lucky. He found a privately-rented house in Salford on his second day in town. “That was 1999 and it was quite easy. Things are different now.”
Having got to know the city Methode was often the fist contact for others coming to Manchester. He would give them advice on where to get advice: an unofficial sign-posting service. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people,” he says, “I don’t like to see people suffer.”
But before long his good nature was to get him into serious trouble.
“Another man who didn’t know his way around had asked me to drive him to meet friends. He paid for the petrol and I offered to be his personal taxi service for the day. What I didn’t know was he was committing serious fraud whilst I was driving him around and he was arrested. The police thought I was implicated and I was arrested too.”
By this time Methode was married and his wife was expecting their second child.
“This man never owned up to the court that I was innocent – he wouldn’t tell them anything – and we were both jailed. I served half of an 18-month sentence.”
But even in prison Methode continued to study – one wall of this office is covered with certificates gained from numerous training courses – and to help other inmates. “I was interpreting for others,” he recalls, “they used to call on me if they needed a French speaker.”
Once released friends and family encouraged Methode to continue his support work but to make it ‘official’. So, in 2003, the AFIP was born.
“Our first funding came from Manchester City Council,” he says, “ and that was for computers and stationery. Since then we’ve grown with more staff and, after many different premises, with this permanent office base.”
This year the project became a not-for-profit limited company. It’s supported by half a dozen or more agencies and Methode, whose work is entirely voluntary, hopes it will become a registered charity before long.
What is most bizarre about Methode’s story is that despite helping hundreds of other asylum-seekers, refugees and other migrants, Methode himself is still not legally resident in the UK.
“Despite numerous applications and many knock-backs I still don’t have permanent leave to remain,” he says. “I feel like a doctor helping the sick and yet being unwell himself. Our clients assume I’ve been accepted here but because of my criminal record the process is still not resolved. It’s nearly 14 years since I arrived in the UK and I’m still living in a state of uncertainty.”