Case Study: START

As part of our Relationships Project, we’re collating a series of case studies from a range of sectors and contexts that demonstrate the benefits and workings of relationship-centred design. Whilst we hope they help build a case for prioritising deep-value relationships, we recognise that – especially at this early stage – we are still learning. We therefore welcome comments, insights, critiques and ideas for case studies from people and organisations across sectors. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch at


Students and Refugees Together (START): Blending Practical Support and Social Activities to Welcome Refugees

You can read the full case study below or take a look at and download the infographic which provides a short, print-friendly summary of the case study here.

Introducing START

Refugees escape terrible circumstances, and the society they enter, whether the UK or elsewhere, is probably unfamiliar and complex, and often hostile. Refugees are also likely to arrive without strong family, friendship or other support networks. It seems clear that meaningful relationships are vital, even a literal lifeline, for refugees. This is demonstrated in academic research, such as that produced at the University of Birmingham and City University.

Students and Refugees Together (START) enlists students to help deliver a range of services and social activities to help refugees learn skills, meet friends and feel at home in Plymouth. START was recently recognised as one of Nesta’s 2018 Good Help finalists.

(If you are interested in organisations supporting refugees, we encourage you to also read our case study on Migrateful)

How does START work?

START aims to help refugees become confident, self-reliant members of the local community. It does this through a combination of practical services and social activities delivered by a core staff team, community partners, volunteers and placement students from social work, occupational therapy, clinical psychology and other disciplines:

1. One-to-one support sessions

Support is varied, and tailored according to refugees’ individual needs and skills. In 2016/17, START case workers worked on 199 long-term cases over 10,206 hours, and supported 193 individual people through 746 drop-in sessions.

2. Job Club

This consists of weekly employability sessions on topics like interview preparation, CV writing and IT skills. 236 refugees attended 51 Job Club sessions in 2016/17, with an average of 51 people per session.

3. A range of social activities:
  • A Women’s Creative Group provides a safe place for women to meet and discuss issues of importance to them and their families.
  • The START Allotment offers community gardening opportunities and a space to socialise and relax. It also provides food for …
  • The Cultural Kitchen: a weekly dinner club for refugees, asylum seekers, volunteers, staff and partners to gather to eat, socialise, play games and participate in cultural exchange. 60-80 people typically attend each week.
  • START Walks similarly bring refugees and asylum seekers together with other community members to enjoy the outdoors and socialise.

START’s approach is based on the belief, as Founder and Chair Avril Bellinger writes, that “most people value those things that cannot be given a price tag: community; kindness; mutual support; curiosity and learning and above all the recognition that we are all part of the same human race.” This explains why START prioritises social activities as well as practical support.

START also follows other relationship-centred principles. As its Brief History explains, START adopts a “strengths approach” which, whilst not ignoring problems, focuses on refugees’ potential. START sees refugees not as problems, but as valued, welcomed community members. START’s approach is also holistic and needs-led, meaning its services are tailored to people’s individual choices and needs, rather than being prescribed according to preconceived ideas or external pressures like funding.

What impact is START having?

Social impact

Of the refugees START worked with in 2016/17:

  • 93% said that START listens to them “all of the time”.
  • 99% that START treats them with respect “all of the time”.
  • 94% that START respond quickly “all of the time”.
  • 98% that they are able to get the support they need when they need it.
  • 74% with issues discussed one-to-one found solutions in one or two sessions.
  • 89% that they feel they have “friends and community” in Plymouth.
  • 77% that they are happy in Plymouth.
  • 94% that they received a good service from START.
  • 95% that they would recommend START to a friend.

What do we think START can teach us about effective relationship-centred design?

Good relationships are mutually beneficial, and allow agency for everybody involved.

Refugees are disempowered in many ways, but START shows that mutual relationships founded on agency and trust offer one route towards re-empowerment. START’s support services begin with refugees’ personal needs and preferences; refugees shape the service provided. START also encourages refugees to contribute to the community through volunteering at Job Club sessions, cooking meals, tending gardenings and other social activities.

Different relationships serve different purposes.

START’s varied activities recognise this. Its one-to-one support, for example, focuses largely (although not exclusively) on instrumental support, whereas the Women’s Creative Group focuses more on emotional support.

Learning represents an excellent framework for building relationships.

Whether as formal services or relaxed activities, learning new skills can bring people together to share and develop together.

Welcoming spaces are required for relationships to grow – especially to people who are unfamiliar with an environment.

START provides a welcoming environment for refugees, and the physical spaces it offers are crucial to this. The communal kitchen, for example, offers a space for people to connect in a relaxed environment, as does START’s allotment. In a broader sense, START Walks take advantage of the surrounding landscape as a relaxed environment in which to connect. As one refugee says in START’s summary video: “START is just like home for people – it’s the best place to be.”

What’s next for START?

START continues its hard work supporting refugees whilst remaining financially sustainable with a small core team.

Want to learn more?


Has this case study inspired any comments, ideas or critiques?

Please do get in touch with us at if so. An essential part of the Relationships Project is learning from others engaged in thinking about relationship-centred design. We don’t have all the answers, so hope some people reading will contribute suggestions.