This year’s Refugee Week theme is We Cannot Walk Alone. One significant question here is who the “we” refers to.
Listening to The Home Secretary and her colleagues, it would be easy to believe that asylum seekers are scroungers, arriving for a better or easier life and intending to live off our welfare state. My experience of working with refugees shows this to be far, far from the truth.
One of the first clients who I met on joining Asylum Welcome was a woman who had lived rough and sofa surfed for ten years before her legal status to remain in the U.K. (and this also means being allowed to work) was finally confirmed. When I interviewed her, now secure in her new home, the thing she stressed most was her desire to be able to give something back. She now commutes every week from Banbury to Oxford to volunteer her time with us to welcome and support other refugees.
Last week I met a leader from the Oxford Sudanese community, many of whom arrived as refugees. Families are keen to help their children thrive in the local school system, but also to understand their own language and culture. So, they set up a supplementary Saturday school which now has over a hundred children. They have run it through thick and thin over many years, with teachers volunteering their time and families paying for the rental of a local school building. Asylum Welcome are helping with training and access to IT resources to help it through lockdown, but the families, -the refugees, -have run and paid for it, and gradually opened it to other Arabic speaking communities.
Many refugees have really struggled during lockdown; their uncertain status, frequent lack of security of status, housing, work, benefits have added to the challenges that we have all faced. Asylum Welcome have scaled up our hardship support by a factor of four based on public generosity. Many individuals, churches and community groups have themselves shown amazing generosity. One story really brought this out and reminded me that refugees want first and foremost to be active citizens, givers not just takers.
A Syrian community leader was telling me how his organisation had delivered fifteen thousand meals to people in need during the lockdown. An impressive achievement indeed, but it wasn’t this that he was most proud of. What really pleased him was that more of the meals had been delivered to people from outside the Syrian community than to Syrians themselves. He was rightly proud that his community were givers, and that the recipients were those in need, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
Just like the woman who came into our office a few weeks back, having just got her first job, and gave me an envelope of cash from her first pay packet to help others in similar situations, we are constantly reminded that people want to help each other. Everyone wants to be part of “we”. Feeling part of a civilised society is based on helping people live safely and fulfil their potential. That is as true for refugees as everyone else. Refugees want to be active citizens too!
Director, Asylum Welcome