A peaceful act of welcome

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LAMBETH PALACE hit the headlines in 2016 when the first Syrian family to come to the UK as part of the Community Refugee Sponsorship program was offered a cottage on its premises (News, July 22, 2016). The Archbishop of Canterbury described the program as “giving churches and other civil society groups the opportunity to take refuge in those who flee war-torn places. Refugees, like everyone else, are valued people who were created in the image of God and deserve security, freedom and the opportunity to thrive. "

It was a brave undertaking. Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, the plight of asylum seekers has rarely been in the news. In 2015, following strong public pressure, the British government committed to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over a period of time and made the local authorities responsible for their resettlement. The model was Canada, where a successful private sponsorship program for Vietnamese boatmen had been initiated in the 1970s.

The program would allow community groups – either registered charities or companies of community interest – to take on the role of helping refugees. They need local authority approval and a comprehensive resettlement plan that includes housing for the refugee family, integration into life in the UK, and support in transitioning to employment and self-sufficiency.

It was a slow start, Nadine Daniel recalls. She was the national coordinator for the Church of England's admission of refugees. The position ended in April after the funding deadline. "Many local authorities were skeptical that volunteers could provide effective support because they feared that their overworked staff could pick up the parts if the plans failed," she says. "Nobody did, and many local authorities are now enthusiastic supporters of the program and are working with community groups to achieve often remarkable results."

The program was developed in consultation with the National Refugee Welcome Board, which was convened by Citizens UK. One of the 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 traveled through the country alone for many months to promote the program and found support from organizations such as CAFOD and the Salvation Army that were already active in this area of ​​social justice.

"It is all very welcome and people have really invested in it," he said. “Groups connect to build a relationship with a family. It expresses the creativity of many high profile individuals to bring communities together. "

Citizens UK laid the foundations and built a central source of information so that groups who took over the program did not have to reinvent the wheel.

The need remains enormous, says Woyecha. He came to this country ten years ago as an asylum seeker from Ethiopia. After four years, he was granted a permanent residence permit, about which he has “one million and one reflection”.

"My life wasn't easy, but I'm lucky because I'm where I am now," he says. "I could advertise and write. I'm worried about the people who are locked up and desperate. those stuck in camps; those who make treacherous trips; those who cannot afford to travel. I was angry then and I am now angry with the (refugee) situation. "

Bekele Woyecha, an ambassador for the program

The hardest thing was to leave his wife and children in Ethiopia. "If your permanent residence permit comes, this status will not be transferred to your family, which means that you have to sponsor them yourself. It is really difficult."

His family was finally able to join him and they now have a third child who was born here. It reflects that people who arrive here usually have suffered traumatic conditions and that families need the most when they start here is a respite. Bread earners are not expected to work six months while finding their way around, and he urges them to learn English as a first priority: “Give time for that. Be serious about it because it can take you forward. "

The support from Church of England groups along with other denominations and religious organizations has been remarkable, Ms. Daniel says. The C of E is involved in 36 of the 80 programs currently running in England and the fact that a PCC is already a registered charity makes it an ideal host.

"If possible, the guiding principle was to first integrate the host community by encouraging as many organizations as possible to get involved," she says. "It was wonderful to see how a very diverse community came together to welcome a stranger. It changed their perspective."

Sponsor Refugees and Reset UK are the two institutions that now run the program. Families have been pre-approved by the Home Office, come to the UK with their refugee status already granted and are fully entitled to benefits. Each host community has to raise £ 9,000, and to date no program has failed due to lack of funds. “Money is never a problem: Above all, you need people who have the time to invest in it,” emphasizes Ms. Daniel.

She is full of praise for the Chelmsford Diocese, in which every Archdiakonia has agreed to provide a home as part of the program. Group training and support are provided by the diocese. "Housing is an important issue, especially in the southeast, and we hope that where Chelmsford has led, more dioceses will follow."

St. Mary & # 39; s, Ilford, received his first family in March 2019 and trained 20 volunteers from local churches in the region to help the family move. The pastor, Rev. Gareth Jones, chairman of Refugee Welcome Dagenham and diocesan refugee coordinator for Essex and East London, says the program has brought people together.

"Many people from different areas have come together for a common cause," he said. “It has brought together the goodness that still exists in the world, even though we currently see the world as a dark place. You just have to scratch the surface and you will find that there is far more goodness than badness and much more light than darkness. "

In the Diocese of Manchester, the mother union was the first to lead a program and welcomed an extended family of eight. Surprisingly, recent Home Office numbers may show that the region with the most programs is the Southwest, and Ms. Daniel comments, “It was 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 little daughter Mary to recognize the friendship and support from the community.

Hampstead Parish Church decided that their PCC would be the overall charity, and as Vicar, Rev. Jeremy Fletcher committed to be the main sponsor. “The least difficult thing here was to get the money. The hardest thing was finding enough people with enough time to make it work, and we were blessed with it, ”he says. "It was great: time and energy and prayer and giving – absorbing the existing energy and connecting it with other organizations and other people."

From the beginning, the Church wanted to be the mediator of a general community initiative. "We raised a very large flag and said:" We want to do that. "Suddenly, a whole network came into being. It took some time to prepare all the necessary plans, explanations and guidelines, but we had an adequate level of voluntary expertise to make it work."

With the help and encouragement of Citizens UK, they launched the initiative in October 2017, were accepted in early 2018, and welcomed their family in September this year. According to the pastor, the system offers guaranteed benefits, especially the assurance for landlords that the housing benefit is paid. An apartment with an excellent school for the two children nearby and access to important ten hours of English classes a week became available.

He commends the Camden Council and the local authority for their support. The hosts commit to one year. After that, families should be ready to move to where they want to live next. The temptation, he thinks, is “to be deeply philanthropic and to do everything for them. But of course the program for which the families register is to come and settle in a new place and become self-sufficient and independent. It's philanthropic but sharp: you need to prepare the family for the world of work. "

The University of Birmingham's Institute for Diversity Research has given praise, and organizations working to help refugees want the program to be accepted much more widely once it is well established. "It's a high quality greeting that enables people to quickly feel part of the community they live in," said Josh Evans, vice chairman of Bearwood Action for Refugees in Birmingham.

Churches in the city have long been active in this area and work closely with Sponsor Refugees (which works with Citizens UK) and Reset UK, which provides mandatory training for guest groups and extensive support. The Smethwick Church Action Network hopes to welcome a family to Smethwick later this year and wants this to keep the community together and promote social cohesion.

Mr. Evans emphasizes: “For everyone who thinks about it, it's not just a matter of ticking boxes and saying: 'We want to do it. & # 39; It's a long process, but there are so many guides and groups that have done it before that it's an achievable goal for a church or other congregation.

“Our vision in all of this fits well with the movement of the sanctuary city. We are just launching Borough of Sanctuary in Sandwell to create a network and family of people who believe that cities should be places of immigration for migrants. Everything is intertwined. It is part of our collective history in a place where many asylum seekers, refugees and migrants have been admitted. "

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

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