On Saturday 21st April 2018, CCOW organised a day conference, ‘Partnerships of Hope – Working Together for Refugees’, at New Road Baptist Church in Oxford.

The aim was to bring people together from across the Thames Valley who are active in supporting refugees or interested in doing so. The event was very popular, with about 100 people – including interested individuals and representatives from various organisations, groups and churches – attending. There was an extremely positive atmosphere as people learned from one another, shared experiences and made connections.

After introductions from the CCOW team, Kate Smart, Director of Asylum Welcome spoke to set the scene. She outlined recent developments in immigration policy and practice nationally and described the current situation with regard to refugees, including the difficulties caused by the policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’. She explained some of the ways Asylum Welcome (based in Oxford and serving Oxfordshire) is helping refugees and asylum seekers in this area. She also praised the many local community initiatives to support refugees and expressed excitement at the potential for agencies and community initiatives to work together for the good of all.

Participants then heard from representatives of four different community groups, each of which is working with and for refugees in a different way.

  • Jazz Shaban shared how Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group formed, raised awareness in their local community and helped to find accommodation for Syrian refugees, including most recently purchasing a house in shared ownership.
  • Shirley Hoy, a member of the group at Blackfriars Church in Oxford,  shared that community’s motivation and experiences in sponsoring a family through the government’s full community sponsorship programme.
  • Ann Linton of Brightwell Supporting Refugees described how people in their village  began supporting specific initiatives for Syrian refugee children in Jordan through a personal connection, including forging links between the local primary school and a school in Jordan.
  • Stephanie Rybak of Wycombe Refugee Partnership shared a presentation on how this inter-faith group provides refugees who have recently been granted leave to remain with accommodation and support to integrate into the community.

At the end the four speakers answered questions about their experiences.

Two women who had come to the UK as refugees then shared their reflections on the experience and engaged with interested questions from the audience. Caritas Umulisa described what it was like for her twenty years ago as a young refugee from Rwanda with little English in a strange place, and also spoke of some of the challenges facing the young refugees who she now supports as part of the team at Asylum Welcome. Niran shared her experience of coming to the UK two years ago with her family under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS), how they were helped by the team from Connection Support, which she dubbed her ‘second family’, and how she now volunteers with them.

Over lunch there was an opportunity to network and to visit stalls from a number of charities and groups working with refugees locally and nationally. It was wonderful to see the space buzzing with conversations.

During the afternoon session, delegates participated in two sessions of workshops.

  • Media expert Jillian Moody led sessions on Working with the Media and Strategic Communications, in which participants explored techniques for working well with local and national media, and thought about how as individual groups and as a network of groups across the Thames Valley, it would be possible to think strategically about media.
  • Joanna Schüder from CCOW lead a workshop on engaging communities, in which participants shared experiences, challenges and hopes. Useful advice included: get advice from a group which is ahead of you; use existing networks, including those from different communities; be clear what you want supporters to do and give them something concrete to do.
  • Maranda St John Nicolle from CCOW led a workshop on engaging churches. Ben Krautzer from St Nicolas, Earley, shared resources for prayer and worship that he had developed; churches involved with community sponsorship shared the processes they had undertaken, and Bridget Walker spoke about the role of churches and meetings in advocacy.
  •  Tamzin Walton of Turpin & Miller LLP led workshops on the statutory rights of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK, offering an overview and answering participants’ questions.
  • Bekele Woyecha of Sponsor Refugees led an Introduction to Community Sponsorship, enabling people interested in community sponsorship to share experiences,  to learn more about the different processes of support for refugees, and to find out what Citizens UK can offer.

As part of the final plenary session all participants were invited to share something they would like to see taken forward from the day. These thoughts will help CCOW, in conversation with others, to consider the next steps. There was clearly a general feeling that more such opportunities to network and to communicate between groups across the Thames Valley would be very valuable.

CCOW would like to thank the many people who were involved in the day, as presenters, participants, and administrative team.