By Iman Hakimi, Comms and Advocacy Volunteer

The Oxford Alternative Walking Tour: an informative and convivial event which magnified the interconnectedness of charity, community, and solidarity.

To kickstart celebrations for Refugee Week 2022, Asylum Welcome organised an Alternative Walking Tour of Oxford on Saturday 18th June: three guided tours led by Oxford-based refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan and beyond. These tours placed a spotlight on some of the core services, locations, and community support groups for people seeking asylum and building new lives in Oxfordshire.

Council leaders, representatives from Oxford Brookes’ Refugee Research Network, faith leaders and local residents attended the tours. Local organisations including Asylum Welcome, Oxford Mutual Aid, The Diocese of Oxford, SolidariTee, Jacari, Refugee Education UK, Refugee Resource and Sanctuary Hosting guided participants through the essential services they provide.

The tours were deeply informative and convivial events which magnified the interconnectedness of advocacy, community, and solidarity. They highlighted the ways in which these organisations enrich and empower East Oxford’s refugee, asylum seeker and vulnerable migrant populations, as well as the ways in which East Oxford is enriched and shaped by its diverse community.

Mark Goldring, director of Asylum Welcome, gave a warm introductory speech to begin the tour. Outlining the critical work done at AW, Mark discussed schemes aiding Ukrainian and Afghan resettlement during the current crises, in addition to highlighting AW’s extensive support to the East Timorese community of East Oxford through the Europa Welcome programme, which aids clients in applying for the European Settlement Scheme.

Osman, a reception volunteer at AW, delivered a touching reminder of the value of volunteering: “When you do something to help someone, that’s just a special feeling.” Mark and Osman so eloquently set the tone for our tour of Oxford’s ‘alt’ community – a day of acknowledging key services and of identifying community spirit.

Hala, our beaming guide and AW receptionist, took us on a short excursion to the Medina Mosque – an important location for many Muslim residents in OX4. A former Syrian refugee herself, who came to the UK via Sweden, Hala kindly shared with me that Oxford has been a refreshingly welcoming city, with her two daughters settling into their new home and school with ease.

We swiftly reached The Porch, a day centre for homeless and vulnerably housed individuals. Rebuilding guests through support with housing, health, wellbeing, education, and employment services, The Porch offers a range of services: one-to-one counselling; nutritious food; sexual health drop-ins; exercise programs; interactive music groups; and allotment projects, to name just a few of the schemes instrumental in guests’ reintegration.

Moving on to St Mary and St John Church, Sophie from Oxford Mutual Aid and Hannah from the Diocese of Oxford explained how their services aid and collaborate with vulnerable people, refugees, and those seeking asylum.

As a grassroots community support group, OMA delivers regular food and baby supplies to households in need. Expressing the sociability and interconnectedness that volunteering at OMA inspires, Sophie stated: “It’s not just about what you can give, it’s about what you get out of it.”

Hannah talked us through the Diocese of Oxford’s current resettlement project with Citizens UK. Matching hosts with Ukrainian refugees in need of a new home, the Diocese’s initiative follows the government’s critical Homes for Ukraine scheme.

En route to Manzil Way Mosque and the East Oxford Health Centre, I spoke to Maria, a participant who recently came to the UK from Afghanistan outside of the government’s “official” settlement scheme. Maria praised Oxford’s compact comfort and hospitality, saying that she feels happier here than in the bustle of London. Once her claim to asylum is granted, Maria hopes to study in one of the city’s universities.

Next was St Clement’s Centre, where Abbie described the running of Asylum Welcome’s Venda youth club, which takes place weekly at the centre. AW’s Venda youth club offers activities for young asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors between the ages of 13-21, as well as hosting a Girls’ Group which provides mutual aid, support, and recreational activities. St Clement’s Centre is also the location of the volunteer-run Open Door, a drop-in service for refugees and asylum seekers which offers lunch and a welcoming atmosphere every Thursday.

Beth, from the student-led charity SolidariTee, also presented their range of t-shirts at the centre. SolidariTee is an international, student-led initiative which collaborates with refugee artists to design and sell bespoke t-shirts, the profits of which are donated as grants to NGOs providing legal aid to refugees and asylees.

This inspiring example of student-steered fundraising is represented again in the next charity on our tour. Torie Stubbs, the Senior Coordinator of Jacari’s Oxford branch, explained the one-on-one tutoring offered by the organisation, which matches university students with migrant, asylum-seeking, and refugee children learning English as a second language.

Guilia Clericetti, Educational Mentoring Coordinator for the Oxford team of Refugee Education UK, proceeded to introduce REUK’s educational programmes. Boosting confidence and vocational and academic skills, REUK gives one-on-one tutoring, workshops, and personalised pastoral care, providing a toolkit for young refugees and asylees in navigating the UK education system.

Our penultimate stop was Refugee Resource, where Carolynn and Charlotte ran through the organisation’s essential services: counselling and psychotherapy, mentoring, individual services for men and women, practical advice, and funding for employment support.

Service Coordinator Eden then introduced us to Sanctuary Hosting, a largely volunteer-led charity which matches people at risk of homelessness with hosts who can offer space in their home rent-free across the Thames Valley. As an Eritrean refugee with experience of homelessness, Eden’s story is a powerful one of achievement – not to be understood within the parameters of the “exceptional refugee” or the “good immigrant”, but simply a reminder of how NGOs like Sanctuary Hosting bridge rebuilding and development in vulnerable guests.

After this swathe of information, the tour settled at Za’atar Bake, a Syrian restaurant and starred spot amongst Cowley Road’s string of world food stores and eateries, inseparable from the area’s multicultural vibrancy. Ahmad, the owner, gave us an effusive welcome, and participants delighted in quintessential North African and Middle Eastern treats.

This gave me the chance to speak to Councillor Susanna Pressel, Chair of Oxfordshire County Council, and Imam Monawar Hussain, Oxford’s High Sheriff between April 2021-March 2022. Pressel shared that issues surrounding refugees are close to her heart, as her parents were refugees from Vienna. Hussain and I concurred on the vitality of communication and sharing experiences in forging community. Explaining that the theme of his Shrieval year was celebrating and expressing gratitude to Oxfordshire’s Covid-19 heroes for giving to their communities, he sincerely praised the work of the NGOs presented during Asylum Welcome’s alternative walking tour for supporting, enriching and enlivening our local community.