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A quiet act of welcome

24 July 2020

Pat Ashworth talks to church organisations that are helping refugees


Resident in a shelter for escaped women in Berlin. Photographs of settled UK refugees are hard to come by

Resident in a shelter for escaped women in Berlin. Photographs of settled UK refugees are hard to come by

LAMBETH PALACE made the headlines in 2016 when a cottage in its grounds was offered to the first Syrian family coming to Britain under the Community Refugee Sponsorship scheme (News, 22 July 2016). The Archbishop of Canterbury described the scheme as “presenting churches and other civil-society groups with the opportunity to provide sanctuary to those fleeing war-torn places. Refugees, like all people, are treasured human beings, made in the image of God, who deserve safety, freedom, and the opportunity to flourish.”

It was a bold venture. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, the plight of asylum-seekers had rarely been out of the news. In 2015, after intense public pressure, the British Government undertook to receive 20,000 Syrian refugees over a period of time, and made local authorities responsible for their resettlement. The model was Canada, where a successful private-sponsorship scheme had been initiated for Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.

The scheme would enable community groups — either registered charities or community-interest companies — to take on the job of supporting refugees. They would need the consent of the local authority, and a comprehensive plan for resettlement which would include providing housing for the refugee family, helping them integrate into life in the UK, and supporting them in the transition to employment and self-sufficiency.

It was a slow start, Nädine Daniel remembers. She was the Church of England’s national refugee-welcome co-ordinator. The post ended in April after the period of funding ran out. “Many local authorities were sceptical that volunteers could provide effective support, fearing that their overstretched staff would be left to pick up the pieces when schemes failed,” she says. “None has, and many local authorities are now enthusiastic supporters of the scheme, working with the community groups to achieve often remarkable results.”

The scheme was developed in consultation with the National Refugee Welcome Board, convened by Citizens UK. One of its earliest and most enthusiastic ambassadors was Bekele Woyecha, a human-rights activist, writer, community leader, and volunteer for the British Red Cross.

In the early days, he spent many months travelling the country alone to promote the scheme, finding ready support from organisations such as CAFOD, and the Salvation Army, who were already involved in this area of social justice.

“There’s a big element of welcome in all this, and people really invested in it,” he said. “Groups bond in building a relationship with a family. It brings out the creativity of many high-calibre individuals to bring communities together.”

Citizens UK did the groundwork, and built up a central source of information, which meant that groups taking on the scheme had no need to reinvent the wheel.

The need remains enormous, Mr Woyecha says. He came to this country ten years ago, as an asylum-seeker from Ethiopia. He was granted indefinite leave to remain after four years, about which he has “a million-and-one reflections”.

“My life hasn’t been easy, but I’m lucky, because I am where I am now,” he says. “I was able to campaign and write. I worry about the guys who are detained and desperate; those stuck in camps; those who make treacherous journeys; those who can’t afford to travel. I was angry then, and I’m angry now at the [refugee] situation.”

Bekele Woyecha, a scheme ambassador

Hardest of all was leaving his wife and children in Ethiopia. “When your indefinite leave to remain comes, that status isn’t transferred to your family, which means you have to sponsor them yourself. It’s really tough.”

His family were eventually able to join him, and they now have a third child, born here. He reflects that people who arrive here will typically have endured traumatic conditions, and what families most need when they start here is breathing-space. Breadwinners are not expected to work for six months while they find their feet, and he urges them to learn English as a first priority: “Give time to it. Be serious about it, because it can take you forward.”


SUPPORT from Church of England groups, together with other denominations and faith-based organisations, has been remarkable, Ms Daniel says. The C of E is involved in 36 of the 80 schemes that are up and running in England, and the fact that a PCC is already a registered charity makes it an ideal lead host.

“Where possible, the guiding principle has been to integrate the host community, first, by encouraging as many organisations as possible to become involved,” she says. “It’s been wonderful watching how a very diverse community has come together to welcome a stranger. It has transformed their outlook.”

Sponsor Refugees and Reset UK are the two bodies that now operate the scheme. Families have been pre-approved by the Home Office, arrive in Britain with their refugee status already granted, and are fully entitled to claim benefits. Each host community must raise £9000, and, to date, no scheme has failed for lack of money. “Money is never a problem: above all, you need people with time to invest in it,” Ms Daniel emphasises.

She is full of praise for the diocese of Chelmsford, where every archdeaconry has agreed to make a house available under the scheme. Group training and support are all to be provided by the diocese. “Housing is a significant issue, especially in the south-east, and we hope that, where Chelmsford has led, other dioceses will follow.”

St Mary’s, Ilford, received its first family in March 2019, and trained 20 volunteers from churches in the area to help the family resettle. The Vicar, the Revd Gareth Jones, who chairs Refugee Welcome Dagenham and is the diocesan refugee co-ordinator for Essex and east London, says that the scheme has brought people together.

“Lots of people from different areas have come together with a common cause,” he said. “It has brought together the goodness that is still around in the world, even though we look upon the world at the moment as a dark place. You only have to scratch the surface and you will find there is far more goodness than badness, and far more light than darkness.”

In the diocese of Manchester, the Mothers’ Union was the first to lead a scheme, welcoming an extended family of eight. Surprisingly, perhaps, recent figures from the Home Office show that the region with the most schemes is the south-west, and Ms Daniel comments: “It’s been incredibly successful in Devon. They saw terrible things on the news, and had money and time to give.“ A family who settled in Ottery St Mary decided to call their baby daughter Mary, in recognition of the friendship and support from the community.

Hampstead Parish Church decided that its PCC would be the overarching charity specified, and, as Vicar, the Revd Jeremy Fletcher undertook to be the lead sponsor. “The least difficult thing round here was to raise the money. The hardest was to find enough people with enough time-commitment to make it work, and we were blessed with that,” he says. “It’s been superb: time and energy and prayer and giving — taking up the energy that was already there and linking it to other organisations and other people.”

From the outset, the church wanted to be the facilitator of a general community initiative. “We raised a very big flag, and said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ Suddenly, a whole network emerged. Doing all the necessary plans and statements and policies took time, but we had a decent amount of voluntary expertise to make that work.”

With the help and encouragement of Citizens UK, they launched the initiative in October 2017, were accepted in early 2018, and received their family in September that year. There are guaranteed benefits to the scheme, the Vicar says, especially assurance for landlords that the housing benefit will be paid. A flat became available, with an excellent school near by for the two children, and access to a crucial ten hours of English teaching a week.

He praises Camden Council and the local authority for their support. Hosts’ commitment to the scheme is for one year, after which families should be ready to move on to where they want to live next. The temptation, he reflects, is “to be deeply philanthropic and do everything for them. But, of course, the scheme the families sign up for is to come and settle into a new place and become self-sufficient and independent. It’s philanthropic, but it’s hard-edged: you’ve got to prepare the family for the world of work.”

Plaudits have come from the University of Birmingham Institute for Research into Diversity, and organisations working in refugee support would like to see a much broader uptake of the scheme now that it is well established. “It’s a high quality welcome which enables people quickly to feel part of the community they live in,” the vice-chair of Bearwood Action for Refugees in Birmingham, Josh Evans, says.

Churches in the city have long been involved in this field, and liaise closely with Sponsor Refugees (which works with Citizens UK), and Reset UK, which provides the mandatory training that host groups undertake, as well as wrap-around support. Smethwick Church Action Network is hoping to welcome a family to Smethwick later this year, and is keen for this to be something that draws the community together and boosts social cohesion.

Mr Evans emphasises: “For anyone thinking about doing it, it isn’t a question of just ticking boxes and saying, ‘We’d like to do it.’ It’s a long process, but there’s so much guidance available, and so many groups that have done it before, that it’s an achievable goal for a church or other community.

“Our vision in all this dovetails with the City of Sanctuary movement. We’re just starting Borough of Sanctuary in Sandwell, to create a network and family of people who believe that cities should be places of welcome for migrants. It’s all intertwined. It’s part of our collective story in a place that has received many asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants.”

He concludes: “This is a really powerful way of living out the kind of calling that we as Christians have.”

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