How many of us are aware that there are several thousand people from East Timor living in our city and county? They are able to be here because of their country’s colonial links with Portugal, and EU freedom of movement. Many have only a modest education, struggle in English, are in poor housing, low paid and zero hours employment. They have been hit hard by COVID. Some are not entitled to the state support we all take for granted; a community that has been ignored and left to struggle on their own on our door steps.
Living alongside them, most closely in East Oxford, are tens of young Eritrean men, many of whom came here as boys fleeing violence in their homeland and who have or are about to graduate from council care. Ill-prepared for life and work in the UK, and often living right on the margins of our society, they come together for support, company, being there for one another as they describe it: “we form each other’s family: mother, brother, sister and a friend”. So, no wonder when one has a job, they pay for the pitch for five a side football.
While COVID has hit all of us in different ways, it has hit those already most marginalised and with the weakest family and community support structures hardest. This has exacerbated many issues, but they all build on longer-standing challenges.
The Sudanese community is much more mixed than the Eritrean in terms of people’s backgrounds and status, how long they have been in the UK and what they now do. But they recognise that their children are struggling with a world of multiple cultures and languages, and so have organised extra Saturday classes for the children within the community.
Whether migrants from East Timor, or asylum seekers and refugees from Eritrea, Syria, Sudan, Iran and so many other countries, the reality of their lives in Oxfordshire is very different from their dreams when they started the long and often difficult journey to get here. While extended families back home wait for financial support from their loved ones across the world, many recent and not so recent arrivals in our country are actually living on the edge, struggling to keep body and soul together. For those in the lengthy process of claiming asylum, the official Asylum Support allowance of not much over £5 a day doesn’t stretch very far.
While government departments, councils and charities all do valuable work and have stepped up housing and hardship support during the lockdown, we know that many refugees and migrants are actually reliant on friends, countrymen and well-wishers for somewhere to sleep, the next meal and, just as importantly, someone to talk to who understands them.
As well as those vital individual relationships, there is a rich tapestry of community organisations across the county, linking people according to ethnicity, language, community or shared experience. In many ways, while organisations like Asylum Welcome are the front line for ensuring effective information, advice and practical support in all areas of their life are provided, these community organisations are the real front line on the human front. They give people a chance to meet, fulfil some gaps left in their lives, share, help each other and seek to better themselves.
The challenge that Asylum Welcome, helped by OCF, is trying to respond to is how we most usefully help these community organisations to best support their own communities. Some organisations have formal structures, others are informal groupings of friends and their friends. There’s no reason why they should all be the same or follow a standard blueprint. We need to work together to identify resources available in and for their communities, share our experience and expertise and explore how best they can build on their own strengths and aspirations.
In opening a dialogue between community leaders and Asylum Welcome, we’ve found that some emerging groups are asking for advice and practical assistance for engaging with their wider community, some want help with governance, including to register to become eligible for other sources of funds, some want help with finance management; some, access to funding opportunities. Some want channels to better make their voices heard; others language training tailored specifically to their communities’ needs. Many want a partner to share the financial burden of running activities that benefit their wider community, but are currently being paid for by only the few members who can afford it. As a small charity ourselves we certainly don’t have all the answers or extensive resources, but, using our rich volunteer network, the skills of our staff and seed funding from OCF, we hope we can offer a useful service that will steadily grow.
The project has only been running for three months. So far, we are in close dialogue with about a dozen organisations and groups, with more in the city and across the county likely to get involved soon. We have begun to help a number of organisations individually, have run the first training for those with shared interests, and made the first small grants. Next year we hope to bring organisations together with the hope of sharing their experience, celebrating their success and identifying areas of shared interest. We are already working closely with our colleagues at Refugee Resource, both to support groups that they identify and make use of their professional expertise in support for mental health and wellbeing.
Living and working across the world for many years, I saw how important informal and often unspoken community support is in all countries and cultures; we’ve recently seen that vividly here in the UK as countless community groups quickly mobilised around COVID. We hope that this project can help build on the best of all of these traditions across Oxfordshire, and promote togetherness and solidarity across communities.