The Journey of Our Refugee Sponsorship Group
Our journey began in the summer of 2015. The news was full of terrible reports of refugees fleeing from war torn Syria and other countries. Scenes of beaches covered in life jackets and photos of refugees’ bodies washed up on the shore, shocked us all, and we wanted to do something.
Our local parish runs a Forum which helps to organise and coordinate events within our own community. At one of these meetings the dreadful situation of the refugees was discussed and we all debated what we could do. Initially the Forum decided to set up a special Refugee Crisis Team to discuss how we could respond to the refugee issue. A meeting date was established and any members of the community who were interested in being involved were invited to attend.
In the meantime, things also started to stir in Rome and Pope Francis made a statement calling for every European parish and religious community to take one refugee family each, in a gesture of solidarity. This put a slightly different focus on the way ahead.
E-mails, phone calls, short discussions and small gatherings took place in the run up to the first Refugee Crisis Team meeting. Many of us recognised that we were the products of refugees who had fled to the UK from other countries in times of crisis, and our relatives were welcomed into those communities. Action was necessary, and with the Media and press coverage highlighting the terrible plight of the refugees; we needed to do something!
Many people turned up at the meeting, with lots of ideas, all wanting to do something to support our brethren. We recognised that Jesus himself and his family were made to become refugees from his own homeland and the desire to take action was a very strong and positive.
Initially the meeting talked about fundraising and we agreed that we would set up a collection in the parish for the refugee crisis and would provide envelopes for the donations so that gift aid could be received. We knew that we weren't alone in having these feelings of needing to do something for the refugees - so people who attended the meeting were given tasks to liaise with local organisations like our Diocese, Caritas and local refugee support groups. We discussed how we can raise the awareness of the plight of the refugees throughout the community and decided we would visit our local school and deliver presentations to the children and also involve the families of the school in raising funds for the crisis.
We also discussed the government’s proposals to take 20,000 refugees from existing camps on the borders of Syria and felt that, in the light of the numbers of refugees that Germany and other countries were accepting. This seemed to be a poor response to the many millions that have lost their homes: we felt that a stronger response was necessary, especially following Pope Francis's request to every Catholic parish and community in Europe. We decided to lobby the government, both locally and nationally, and establish online petitions.
We hoped that through the power of prayer, together with our actions; we could make a real difference to the lives of some refugees. The initial meeting closed with a list of actions that members of the group would undertake before the next planned meeting. The action commenced and … our journey began.
Over the next few months we invited guest speakers to attend and address Refugee Crisis Team meetings and avenues were opened with other local organisations especially Caritas. Fund raising events were organised, collections at masses, gift aid envelopes were completed and filled with donations, schoolchildren organised their own little activities to raise funds; one class held the sponsored silence of the selling lemonade and cakes, others organising discos and sponsored sleep-overs and school families joined in organising fundraising events. Each child in the school produced a poster promoting the welcoming of a refugee family, and many were displayed in church. Very quickly the funds exceeded £3,500 and this was shared between CAFOD and CARITAS refugee crisis funds.
Despite all the online petitions that we had established alongside the many other requests for the government to increase the number of refugees it was prepared to accept over the next five years; the government seemed resolved to sticking to admitting only 20,000. The Refugee Crisis Team seemed to have come to a brick wall when it came to acceding the Pope's request for every parish in community in Europe to house a refugee family. As 2016 approached; a close relationship with Caritas Salford had been established. The local diocese had asked Caritas to take on its response to the refugee crisis; but where would we be going next? The answer seemed to come from … Canada!
Since the early 1990’s - the Canadian government had warmly welcomed refugees from across the world and had actively encouraged local community groups to sponsor a refugee family. Members of the Refugee Crisis Team researched the Canadian Community Refugee Sponsorship Scheme and felt that this was a sound model on which the group could respond to the Papal request. Emails with video links etc., were passed from group member to group member and dialogue with Caritas intensified. The Prime Minister received a letter from the group asking him to consider adopting the Canadian model of communities sponsoring refugee families; the response from David Cameron was that he thought it sounded promising and that he had passed the recommendation onto the Home Office. The Government had received a lot of criticism over its decision to only admit 20,000 refugees over the next 5 years and numerous organisations had lobbied MP’s about the response.
Meanwhile – Caritas had established a Steering Group and several meetings and training sessions were organised, attended by several group members. Church leaders were having high level discussions with the government and the Home Office invited interested parties to meetings in London; the eventual outcome being the establishment of National Private Sponsorship Scheme and a National Refugee Welcome Board.
After several meetings and discussions concerning the new Sponsorship scheme; our group was approached to become one of only five Vanguard sponsoring groups in the whole country. We were required to draw up an action plan and demonstrate that we had sufficient funds, as well as the necessary skills to resettle a Syrian refugee family in our community. We felt it was necessary to establish a more formal group, with clear roles and responsibilities and gain the full support of the Parish before fully confirming our involvement and we decided to have a formal launch of the project, advising parishioners of what we were hoping to do and providing question and answer sessions. Parishioners were asked to “sign up” to the group, offering their time and skills in specific, or general roles, as well as making (and gift aiding) donations. The resultant meeting was very well attended; key roles and group proposals were established and various group members were “voted in” to lead teams and take on strategic roles etc., The Countdown had begun.
Various issues were raised and debated thoroughly: Do we need to apply for charitable status? … Do we need a constitution? … How do we make decisions? All these were answered in the months ahead. Through several discussions; an agreement was reached that the newly established “Parish Refugee Sponsorship Group” (RSG) would work under the umbrella of Caritas, who would be the lead sponsor, providing the RSG with relevant support and guidance as well as providing professional back up. (This removed the need for applying for charitable status or a need for a constitution.)
The RSG Action Plan gradually started to take form and was eventually reduced to several areas; Accommodation, Welfare, Finance, Education, Employment and Transport. Team-leaders were given the responsibility for each area supported with a small team of organisers. A Chair, Vice-Chair, secretary and other specific roles were also taken up by volunteers. Very quickly funds rose to an excess of £7000 with pledges to pay monthly standing orders for nearly £300 per month, with several very generous donations. One of our Parishioners had very close links with a housing association, and with their support, suitable properties were sought until one was found that would be ideal for a refugee family.
Eventually the Action Plan was submitted to the Home Office for approval. Several questions were raised about our plans, each in turn was answered and clarified carefully. A team from the Home Office visited the Parish and met with the group, probing deeper into the action plans, seeking clarification on some areas and visiting the home. They were impressed, leaving us with a few more issues to resolve over the coming weeks, but left us in no doubt that our application would be approved. One hurdle cleared; now another two to face – The Greater Manchester Association of Councils and our local authority, both had to give their approval before the “Go Ahead” was given.
In the first week of August 2016; we were given the thumbs up; the local authorities have given their permission … and we had “Lift-Off!” Our Parish received formal approval to resettle a Syrian refugee family in the United Kingdom. We were given a six-week countdown to the arrival of the family. Now the real work began in earnest.
Each team within the sponsorship group started to draw up specific detailed plans for the two weeks up to the arrival of the family, for six weeks after the family’s arrival and beyond. Appeals were launched through the parish and school, to continue to raise funds, but also for furniture, fixtures and fittings or the house as well as clothes for the whole family, shoes, toys for the children and other items that would be needed in their new home.
The response was amazing. Within a few weeks the group had received multiple offers of furniture, beds, clothing, toys, garden utensils... but where could we store it all? Luckily one of the group members had a furniture removal business and had access to both vehicles and storage facilities. The house was not yet quite ready for us to begin preparing for the family's arrival and with the deadline approaching, things rapidly began to speed up.
As we geared up to the arrival of the family, we were notified by the Home Office that there had been a delay and the family would now be arriving later than we had been informed. This was disappointing, but provided us with some extra time to get everything prepared as perfectly as possible. A few weeks later we were given an official date, Wednesday 9th November 2016. Into early October, the house became available and teams of volunteers worked tirelessly, furnishing, cleaning, gardening, arranging for phones and Internet access etc., liaising with utilities, sorting through the donated clothes and shoes etc., and making the house as welcoming as possible. The fundraising continued and an 80s disco night, but with participants dressed in fancy dress related to the 80s, raised almost £3000 - a magnificent effort.
To support our action plan the group established an online calendar/diary for all the events, with times and dates, persons involved, interpreters available and who would supply the transport. We were always cautious about letting the general public know of our activities and we were eager to protect the family from any unwanted attention.
Much earlier in our plans a risk assessment identified all the potential risks to the family members, volunteers and members of the public. A robust safeguarding policy was needed with clear guidance and details of reducing all kinds of risks and identifying any issues at an early stage. The group undertook several safeguarding and child protection training sessions organised both by Caritas and group members who had specialisms in this area. A safeguarding reporting scheme was put in place and involved regular reporting, via e-mail, to the safeguarding team. The local police were involved and were keen to offer their advice whenever necessary. The police were kept informed of developments as the project came to a head.
The arrival day beckoned and the group developed the “Welcome Experience” - preparing a welcome pack for the family, appropriate food in the fridge, a special Syrian meal upon arrival at the house (cooked by one of our interpreters), warm clothing and blankets for when they arrived, child seats for the minibus journey, a small bag of gifts for each child together with various “Welcome” banners written in English and Arabic.
A small number of our group were joined by officials from the Home Office and other organisations as we waited with a sense of anticipation, nervousness and excitement in the arrivals’ lounge in Manchester airport's terminal one. For what seemed like hours we waited patiently, carefully examining every family who came through the automatic doors until at last we saw our family. Our carefully practised welcoming Arabic phrases became a muddled mixture of incoherent words as we met both parents and their children for the first time. Our minibus journey was a cacophony of conversations intermingling with Arabic and English as we made our way towards the family’s new home in our community; where a very warm house, a hot meal and a group of volunteers were awaiting.
As the last item of luggage was unloaded and we checked the minibus for any articles left over; the driver told us, “I only live over the road; if the family need anything – just ask me!” He had obviously overheard the conversations from the journey, demonstrating once again that most people only want to help.
The first few weeks were busy for us all: each group carrying out its tasks to help the family settle down in their new community. The family was registered with doctors and dentists, the children were registered with schools and integration plans were drawn up to support the children as they started their new school, learning a new language and finding new friends. The father was helped to complete the reams of paperwork necessary to apply for government support. He was taken to register the job centre and learn the new process of “signing on” and steps were made to help provide the family with opening a bank account.
Members of the group had previously investigated where different kinds of foods eaten by Syrians and Lebanese families could be found in Manchester. A large supermarket called the “World of Foods” was located, near the centre of Manchester, and the family were taken to undertake food shopping and experience spending English money for the first time.
The group were conscious that the family would have no money at all until the benefit system kicked in, which wouldn't be for at least four weeks and maybe as long as six. We agreed that we would supply the family with the sum of £400 per week for the first four weeks, payable from our fundraising activities. This would cover the costs of purchasing food and other necessary items that would be required for the first month. The group had set aside a budget for clothing and the family was taken to the local clothes shops to purchase shoes, warm coats and clothing as well as school wear.
The group’s finance team had set up all the utilities to the house; gas, electric, water, telephone and had provided a short term broadband contract as well as a computer and printer. It had been agreed by the group that we would cover all the costs of the family for the first month, and supplement the benefits as they arrived to a maximum of £400 per week; which we had forecast as the total weekly amount of benefits that the family would eventually receive. Initially the family’s benefits were paid into a group member’s account as opening a bank account was becoming a challenge. However, following a letter to the bank from the local council we managed to open a bank account for the family and now paying their benefits directly into the new account should have followed. Trying to change the bank details to receive income support and benefits seems like an easy task from the outside, but when the applicant can hardly speak any English and the assistant on the other end of the phone wants to speak to them; it becomes a challenge. After two months the majority of the benefits were paid directly to the family's bank account. Dad quickly learnt the “ins and outs” of online banking and after a quick budgeting meeting he had complete control of all his finances.
The group was required to provide a minimum of 10 hours English tuition per week for both parents who were taken to undertake a language assessment so that they could be taught at the appropriate level. Luckily the dad could speak a little English and was placed in a more advanced class. The mother, had very little English and was placed in the basic class. Both parents would have to attend college on two days a week to learn English and a rota was drawn up to help both parents to travel to and from college initially by car, leading to a gradual introduction to using public transport. Unfortunately the college English lessons amounted to only seven hours per week and the group was fortunate enough to have several trained teachers, some with ESOL experience, who volunteered their time to support the family in their mastery of English for a further four hours per week. In fact every time the family were visited by a group member another opportunity to learn English was provided and quickly the whole family, even the three-year-old, were starting to say words, phrases and singing simple songs. The children loved to sing “head and shoulders, knees and toes,” with all the actions and the whole family mastered Boney M’s “Calendar Song” which the three-year-old girl loved to sing, via whatsapp, to her relatives now living in the Lenanon, far from their home in war-torn Syria.
The two boys, aged six and seven, were enrolled in a local school not far from where they lived and following the integration plan drawn up by group members, school staff and advisers from another local school; the boys made a step-by-step gradual introduction to attending school on a full-time basis. The boys could not speak a word of English when they started, but soon were bringing home reading books and homework. The names of new friends gradually began to appear in conversations at home. The school had arranged for the boys to have support from pupil mentors who were carefully chosen to benefit the two boys. The parents were handheld in the dropping off and collection of the children until they were happy and confident enough to do it themselves.
The little girl was very attached to mum and even though a part-time place was offered for her in nursery of the same school as her two brothers, it was felt it was a little bit too early for mother and daughter to be separated for any length of time and we agreed to defer requesting a place for the young girl for a few more weeks as we knew this would be a greater challenge than the boys. And so it proved to be …
The little girl started nursery on a part time basis in January 2017; afternoons only. The first afternoon proved to be an ordeal for the little one; quickly becoming panic stricken and screaming herself to sleep after mum had left her in the nursery. In discussion with the teaching staff; we decided to gradually integrate her with support from group members and our interpreter. The upset, for mum and child, continued and we reduced the amount of time she was in nursery and dad started to drop her off, as it was evident that the situation was worse when mum dropped off. Very gradually the panic and screaming reduced, and the lengths of the afternoon session were increased until … at last she settled down, began to develop friendships and rapidly started to master speaking English. She starts nursery school full time in September 2017.
Our ultimate aim in supporting the family was to help them to become fully independent and active members of the community, and within a few weeks of the family's arrival; the father was given the opportunity to volunteer his services to a shelter which provided hot meals for the homeless every Saturday evening. This he has continued to do for several months; developing his skills, continuing to learn English, interacting with others and making a contribution to the needy in our society.
Six months down the line: the family have settled into their new home, have got to know their neighbours, the children are happy in their new school, the dad is almost fluent in English and the mum is steadily catching up, job opportunities are arising and things are looking good for the family. Amazingly all the children are quickly learning to read and speak in English. We can hold a conversation with all of them. The children have made many friends at school as well as playmates near their home and the family has even travelled to Scotland to visit some of their friends from Syria.
Media coverage of the family’s resettlement in Manchester increased and local TV undertook a mini documentary on their journey from Syria to the Lebanon, and eventually settling down in their new home and a new community.
The group’s involvement in the resettlement programme is destined for another 18 months and we are confident that before then: the family will have totally integrated and become full and active members of our community. Yes, they will still retain of their language and culture; but this is celebrated and welcomed in our Parish.
Our big hope is that our actions will create opportunities for countless refugee families to find new homes in local communities throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
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