On March 29th, an audience of more than one hundred and fifty gathered in St Ethelburga’s church for the launch Welcoming Syrian Refugees: An introductory guide. The guide is inspired by the large number of people who want to support refugees and informed by the experiences of Refugee Welcome groups across the UK.
The guide was coordinated and launched by Migrants Organise, together with Citizens UK, the Rural Refugee Network and TERN (The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network). Speakers on the evening included Migrants Organise CEO Zrinka Bralo, Stella Creasy MP, Salvation Army Major Nick Coke and Lord Alf Dubs who addressed the audience over the phone!
The evening was coordinated by Julia Thistleton-Smith, whose speech below provided the background to the work. It provides an overview of all that has been achieved this far, and explains how the pack can be used to enhance and improve the work of welcoming refugees in the future.
“The Rural Refugee Network (RRN) was set up by a group of friends in 2015. We were very angry about what we perceived to be the moral bankruptcy of a large portion of the British media, particularly the way they were covering the Syrian crisis. We decided that talking amongst ourselves and expressing anger at what was happening was no longer enough – action was required.
We began to develop a framework locally that could be an example for national action. Our network quickly grew from a small group of friends to an organised team of over 80 volunteers, an achievement made possible largely due to the inspiring help of Citizens UK. When we began organising our local council refusal to meet with us and our local MP pretty much laughed in our faces. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of our volunteers we soon secured the agreement of the local council to accept Syrian refugees through the Government’s VPRS programme and, in a short space of time, were sourcing accommodation for and welcoming our first three families within 6 months.
When we began supporting refugees locally, I struggled with the realisation that we would only be able to assist a small number of families. We knew that the numbers affected were enormous and our work did not seem like a large enough contribution given the scale of the international crisis. One day, a member of the team shared a story that moved me and helped me make sense of what we were doing. I wanted to share this story with you today.
She told me about a friend of hers who was visiting Barbados and after a huge storm the night before she found herself on a beach which had literally hundreds of thousands of tiny starfish who had been washed up by the storm and who were shrivelling up and dying in the heat of the sun. She noticed a young man by the waters edge who was slowly but patiently picking up the starfish one by one and carrying them into the safe deep water and letting them go. Her friend was astonished and went up to the man and asked him why he was doing this when it was clearly impossible to save all the starfish on the beach. The young man showed her the starfish in his hand and said “you know what, this one’s going to be ok.” And he carried it out into the water – he picked up another and said, “this one will live too.” This story completely changed how I perceived our work and made me appreciate that every single life we save is important.
The great news is that there are groups like RRN all over the UK and many of us have successfully found homes for refugees and helped them integrate successfully into our communities. There are also numerous community groups who want to help but haven’t yet managed to resettle refugees. Local councils offers to take Syrian refugees currently exceed the 20,000 refugees that the UK Government has committed to take via the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). However, these offers don’t always translate into arrivals and many councils have delayed bringing through those refugees they have committed to take.
RRN started creating and collating materials last summer when Citizens UK asked us to talk to new community group leaders at their training, held at Amnesty International. It was clear at that meeting that there was a genuine need for groups to share best practice across the country more effectively and from this need the idea of a guidance pack was developed.
The ultimate aim of the Guide is to assist communities in the job of welcoming more refugees more quickly. We’ve spent the past six months working closely with Citizens UK , The Entrepreniual Refugee Network and Migrants Organise who have led this project together with RRN. We have gathered and created materials from around the UK to help others to undertake the important work of welcoming refugees.
When we started it was obvious that there are many established organisations who have been working in this area for years and we wanted to ensure that we got input from them – what’s been especially gratifying is that everyone we’ve reached out to has given valuable feedback which has helped shape the Guide and add to the important information that it contains.
It’s wonderful to have a published version of the Guide, but we believe that groups will benefit most from the wealth of information contained in the online resource centre. The Guide format follows the journey groups will take from setting up a new team to welcoming the first family, and everything in between.
One of the biggest challenges many groups, especially in the south, have faced is finding housing and the Guide includes a flowchart for sourcing housing as well as examples of how to approach estate agents and an example presentation for hosting an open meeting which includes potential landlords.
Other areas covered include engaging and working with local authorities, preparing for arrival day and of course all the work that needs to take place post arrival – including information on the phase many groups including ours are now working on which is helping with a return to work. We also include information on the critically important areas of Unaccompanied Minors and Community Sponsorship.
In the last few months we’ve seen offers of housing for Syrian refugees triple as well as a huge increase in offers of volunteer support and we’ve had similar feedback from other groups like ours around the UK. More people than ever are taking action – I would like to finish by making a plea to everyone in this room – to keep up the great work we’re doing – and to share that work as often as we can so that together we can help save more lives.”