Featured photo: American Photo Archive / Alamy

Two events last week illustrated very different elements of our work. We supported a young woman, who had arrived in Oxford among the thousands flown out of Kabul last summer, to move into her own flat in the city. She was an outspoken activist, at extreme risk if she had stayed. She is now rebuilding her life in the city. We will continue to engage and offer the support she needs.

On the same day as she moved in, we had a call on behalf of a young man found wandering around South Oxford. He turned out to be a 16-year-old Afghan boy who had climbed out of a lorry at the motorway services. Our staff were able to quickly provide advice and support, and he is now in the care of social services. We will seek to engage him in our youth activities and help his transition to adulthood and his new life.

This range of activities illustrates the bread and butter of our work that will, along with so many other important activities, continue in 2022. Changes to the law currently going through Parliament may make life even harder for many of our clients, with so-called “illegal” arrivals having reduced rights, benefits and opportunities. This will make our work even more needed.

One of our plans and priorities for the year ahead is to explore how we can better put our clients and people with lived experience at the heart of our planning and decision making, and help create the opportunities for them to speak out for themselves. This means moving on from seeing refugees primarily as receivers of our services, and starting to look more closely at how we run ourselves and plan and deliver our programmes. This evolution feels doubly important as our clients face a harsher legal and political environment.

I saw one element of this for myself last week, when we were doing a pitch for an important partnership opportunity in front of a hall of a thousand people at St Edward’s School, as they nominated us to be their charity of the year. They, along with Magdalen College School and a number of others, already support us in many amazing ways, including welcoming and hosting the Afghans at their facilities. I sat in the audience and watched admiringly as a colleague, who is at once a client and a staff member, held the audience spellbound as he told his personal story of life as an asylum seeker: how he achieved his refugee status during the middle of the pandemic, and what Asylum Welcome meant to him since arriving in the UK as a 17-year-old unaccompanied child just a few years ago. You can read a bit more about Aiham’s story in his reflection below, adapted from his recent talks at St Edward’s and MCS, which I am sure you will enjoy reading.

We look forward to continuing to adapt, innovate and respond in creative and collaborative ways, as we have done with so many of you, to the ever-expanding needs of our clients. We face what is likely to be another challenging year, with an anticipated increase in the number of people arriving in Oxfordshire in less-than-ideal conditions and facing enormous legal, political and socio-economic challenges. We appreciate our supporters’ generosity and have used this to maximum effect in 2021, helping many more clients than in previous years. We are grateful to all of our supporters, individuals, organisations, school, trusts and foundations. Over recent months we have been particularly helped by generous support from faith groups, community groups, the Getty Foundation, Love Welcomes, BlackRock, and local schools, including two that have recently chosen Asylum Welcome as their charity of the Year, Magdalen College School and St Edward’s School as described above, as well as countless other individuals and families.

I would also encourage you to watch a couple of short videos below: one invites you to hear from Jan, who may be well known to you as a longstanding volunteer at Asylum Welcome who has supported the organisation for over 25 years and has made a truly remarkable contribution. You will hear Jan talking about what Asylum Welcome means to her and why she has found volunteering with us so rewarding and inspiring. The other video is from Ben, our Laptop and Digital Inclusion Volunteer Coordinator, talking about the impact that our project is having as we work together with Getting Oxfordshire Online on improving our clients’ lives and access to technology but also with a reminder about the need for more devices.

We were also very sad to learn of the death of another one of our long-standing volunteers and supporters, Professor Anthony Bradley QC, known among our Asylum Welcome community as Tony, who passed away on December 2021. Tony was a true friend and strong supporter of refugees and vulnerable migrants’ rights and we send our deepest condolences to all his family.

With your help, we are committed to continuing to expand the quantity and quality of our work in 2022, to continue providing a welcoming place and helping to improve refugees and asylum seekers’ rights and living standards.

Wishing you all a much better and fulfilling 2022,

Aiham Al Aswadi: Have any of you ever thought what is it like to be a young asylum seeker?

Aiham, new member of AW staff

What is it like to be forced to leave home because your house is being bombed, because there is a war in your country?

Roughly half of the 80 million refugees in the world right now are children. How does it feel to have your life, dreams and aspirations shattered from a young age?

I first came to the UK on my own when I was 17; I left my family, friends and home in Yemen, where one of the worst humanitarian crises is sadly taking place, in order to seek a better and safer life.

Imagine the moment when I realised I wouldn’t be able to see my family ever again. It took a while to sink in as I kept denying this ugly truth.

I was first living in London, but soon found out that being there on your own at 17 is not easy, so I found my way to Oxford hoping to find a better and cheaper place to live. I started my asylum process in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. The process took a year and a half – which is very fast when compared to the stories of many others, which can take 5, 10 or even 15 years to be resolved.

Amidst the peak of the pandemic, isolating in my small room, with only £40 pounds a week to pay for food and everything else, the existential question whispered in my ears “Why am I still alive?” “Is life really worth it?”

Due to the warm and welcoming environment here in Oxford, I was able to put together my life, my goals and my relationships.

I first sought the help of Asylum Welcome in late 2020. Out of the countless times I was aided and supported by this organisation, I will only highlight a few. As my tenancy in my previous accommodation was nearing expiry, and my financial situation didn’t allow me to renew it, homelessness was approaching me. I was referred to an organisation through which I was relocated to be hosted by people so lovely and charming that I still visit them occasionally to say hi. Asylum Welcome was the linking bridge and without them, things could have turned out badly. In addition, the pandemic outbreak caused many asylum cases to be delayed and lost in an endless stack of folders, as you can imagine. Jess, who is my colleague at Asylum Welcome now, managed to get in touch with my MP, who contacted the Home Office to highlight the urgency of the case and the need for an immediate response. This played a major role in the success of my case and the confirmation that I could stay in this country for 5 more years.

A few months later, and inspired by Asylum Welcome’s support and positive mentality, I chose to volunteer with them. As you cannot work or study whilst your asylum claim is being processed, I thought I would use this time to help support many others facing similar challenges to mine, to gain some volunteer experience and to be part of an organisation that is doing so much to support 1,500 refugees and asylum seekers every year.

I volunteered to help make clients coming to the office feel welcomed and supported, translating from English to Arabic and vice versa as many of our clients don’t speak English. I also helped the Youth Service support 150 young people on a range of issues, including their immigration status, their mental health, and English classes – and also with fun social and sporting activities. Without this support, many young kids between the ages of 14 and 24 who arrive here on their own, alone and without their parents, would be seriously struggling on many fronts.

This month, I can gladly share that I became a Programme Assistant at this wonderful organisation. It’s been quite an amazing journey for me, coming to Asylum Welcome first as a client, then joining the team as a volunteer, and now I am a member of staff! I hope to continue helping many others, while I gain some work experience and continue developing my goals and ambitions, particularly to continue my BA in Computer Science at Brookes.

However, despite the fact that I am now a paid worker, I still consider myself a client of Asylum Welcome. To this very day, I am seeking advice and help from “colleagues”.

Let me share with you one small but very meaningful anecdote for me. During one of my days as a volunteer last month, we received many Christmas presents from a school called St Edward’s for our most vulnerable clients. Seeing the colorful and beautifully-wrapped boxes, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what was written on the gift cards. To my surprise, one of the cards had my name on it! To the person who bought me the gift, thank you very much for your kindness. I know how much happiness these amazing Christmas gifts brought to so many families and children we work with.

As you all know, Asylum Welcome is also supporting many Afghans while they wait patiently in hotels to be resettled somewhere in the UK, including Oxford, and we will continue to support them until they are housed. It’s hard to call them lucky after the horrors that they’ve experienced in Afghanistan. But compared with the vast majority of refugees making their way to the UK by very dangerous routes, they are lucky. Most of the hundreds of asylum seekers whom Asylum Welcome assists every year have arrived here after risking their lives in dinghy boats or on lorries, as one of our clients did just last week, only to experience a less than warm welcome on arrival.

But Asylum Welcome helps them with everything from legal advice, shelter, food, laptops, bicycles, and weekly hardship payments, to education and employment – all provided by a small staff team and hundreds of amazing volunteers.

You have already helped us in so many creative ways, by providing us with much-needed laptops, organising concerts and sporting events in aid of Asylum Welcome, collecting food donations for our food bank, welcoming and hosting the Afghans in your facilities, and helping us spread the word. There are many ways you can continue to help us, and so many amazing things that we can do together. We look forward to collaborating with you all over the coming year, in our shared efforts to make Oxford a better and warmer place for everyone.

Thank you.

PS: If you are interested in finding out a bit more about the situation in Yemen, I wrote a blog about it last year, which you can read here: Yemen: between longing and despair. I was also recently interviewed by Kat Orman, from BBC Radio Oxford. You can hear more about the context and circumstances that led me and my family to leave Yemen when I was 10 years old, about my experience of being an asylum seeker arriving to the UK when I was 17 and living in Oxford by clicking here to listen.

Volunteering at Asylum Welcome: “You will just find it the most phenomenally rewarding experience… Asylum Welcome is fabulous.” – Jan Penrose

Jan Penrose, our beloved and longstanding volunteer at Asylum Welcome, recently stepped down to embark on a new adventure. Jan supported the organisation for over 25 years, making a truly remarkable contribution to improving the lives of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Oxfordshire. In this video, she shares what Asylum Welcome means to her and why she has found volunteering with us so rewarding and inspiring.

Please watch Jan’s experience of volunteering at Asylum Welcome below.

If you would like to join many other amazing volunteers like Jan, we have volunteer roles available across all our services and we are always on the lookout for people to join the team. There is no doubt that our 200+ volunteers are our biggest asset and we are certain that you, just like Jan, “will just find it the most phenomenally rewarding experience!” For information on volunteering, please click here or get in touch with us directly at volunteer@asylum-welcome.org.

Tribute: Professor Anthony Bradley QC

We are very sad to learn of the death of one of our long-standing volunteers, Professor Anthony Bradley who was known among our Asylum Welcome community as Tony. He passed away on December 20th 2021.

Tony was a true friend of refugees and vulnerable migrants not only those who are living in the community but those who were detained due to their immigration status under our harsh immigration rules.

Tony’s distinguished intellectual ability as a thinker and a human rights lawyer, and his approach and belief in providing practical support to refugees and migrants, led to him becoming involved with Asylum Welcome as a volunteer. He worked to support clients and also to support staff and volunteers to advocate on their behalf.

Professor Philippe Sands QC also sent his condolences and acknowledged that Tony was “a wonderful person”. Tony’s crucial legal support for the displaced people of the Chagos Islands in a seminal case in 1971 set the course for the most recent International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion, written by Philippe Sands QC, again supporting the legal case for the people from the Chagos Islands.

Refugee and migrant communities have lost a good friend who will be greatly missed. We are so grateful for all his contributions and would like to give our heartfelt condolences to his wife Katherine and the rest of the family.

Asylum Welcome’s Laptops and Digital Inclusion Project

Ben, our Laptops and Digital Inclusion Volunteer Coordinator, and Saeed, our Office Manager, delighted to receive nearly 30 donated laptops and desktops from BlackRock last year.

Thank you so much to everyone who has donated computers and/or their time, allowing us to provide more than 180 laptops to refugees and asylum seekers through our laptops project.

These devices have been life-changing for clients. In particular, for the 60 Afghan families we provided devices to when they first arrived in hotels in Oxfordshire. These have provided a lifeline to the outside world. And for all our clients, these devices have helped them to move forward with their lives, including processing their asylum applications through government systems, supporting both adult and children’s education, letting people join online courses, or working with Asylum Welcome staff to develop their CVs and apply for jobs. As waves of COVID have come and gone, the devices have helped clients to stay connected and helped Asylum Welcome deliver support in new and innovative ways.

So, a big thank you to everyone who has supported us so far in making such a difference, and with so many more people in need of support, we look forward to continuing this work in the future. If you have a laptop in a good condition that is no longer in use, please do consider donating it to us by writing to: laptops@asylum-welcome.org or click here.

If people are further afield in the county, they are welcome to donate to SOFEA in Didcot or Bicester Green in Bicester, who work together with us at www.gettingoxfordshireonline.org supplying laptops for our programme.

These donated devices are making such a big difference to our clients and you can hear more about them by watching the video below.

We would like to share one testimonial with you from a very happy client of ours:

Other easy and fun ways to support Asylum Welcome

Easy Fundraising: Did you know that you could be raising FREE donations for Asylum Welcome when you buy things online?

Over 6,000 online shops and websites such as John Lewis, Argos, Hotels.com, Just Eat and Ebay will give a free donation to us when you shop via easyfundraising. Plus, if you sign up and raise your first £5 in donations, our friends at easyfundraising will give us an additional £5 bonus.

To help us make a real difference, follow the 3 simple steps:
1. Go to: http://efraising.org/KWuo67K46j and join for free.
2. Click ‘support this cause’ and create an account
3. Choose from over 6,000 retailers to do your online shopping as normal and we will receive a free donation with every purchase you make, at no extra cost to you or us!

Oxford Lottery: Join the Oxford Lottery and you could win up to £25,000! Tickets cost just £1 per week. If you sign up and choose to support Asylum Welcome, 50% of every £1 you spend will go directly to us and a further 10% to other local causes.

The weekly draw takes place every Saturday night. Match all 6 numbers and you win the JACKPOT. Plus, there are many other cash prizes and other prizes to win! Each ticket has a 1 in 50 chance of winning a prize each week.

You can sign up by clicking here or by simply clicking on the image below which will take you straight to our Oxford Lottery page!

Thank you so much for your support!

A Big Thank You!

A huge thank you to everyone who has sent messages of solidarity to the Afghan families we are supporting at the hotels in Oxfordshire, as a response to our Winter Appeal 2021. We and the Afghan families have been overwhelmed by such generous and positive response, and know that these messages will have a significant impact on making our new guests feel welcomed and supported. You can see photos of some of these messages below.