Case Study: Blackfriars Community Sponsorship Group

Blackfriars Community Sponsorship Group

Blackfriars Refugee Aid, an initiative of the Family Mass congregation at Blackfriars Roman Catholic Dominican Priory in Oxford, was one of the first groups in the Thames Valley to take on Full Community Sponsorship of a refugee family and has found it an extremely positive experience. Full Community Sponsorship was launched by the government in July 2016 as part of its Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme , which will bring 20,000 refugees from camps near Syria to the UK by 2020. Community Sponsorship groups are responsible for organising accommodation, welcome, orientation, English language instruction, and help accessing services and employment. The group at Blackfriars has learned a lot over the eighteen months since they first began talking about the possibility of supporting a refugee family in this way. They are keen to share their experience, so that others considering Full Community Sponsorship will be inspired to do it too and will have an easier task.

How it started

Brother Andrew at Blackfriars received an email from Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. The email spoke about the Pope’s statement encouraging Catholics to take in refugees, and gave information about the possibility of Community Sponsorship. A member of the congregation had also been feeling she was not doing enough to help refugees and would like to do something concrete; talking with other congregants, she found they had similar feelings. So Brother Andrew started a series of meetings. He began by inviting some refugees already living in Oxford to come and chat with the people at Blackfriars, so that they could find out more about refugees. He also very helpfully invited the inspirational speaker Sean Ryan from St Monica’s in Manchester, the first church in the country to do Community Sponsorship.

Blackfriars Refugee Aid is formed

Once there was support for the Community Sponsorship endeavour within the church at Blackfriars, a group was formed and named Blackfriars Refugee Aid. Brother Andrew, knowing the abilities and resources of those in his congregation, picked people to be on the committee. The committee was initially made up of 15 people, with a core group of 7. At first they thought that they would have to set up a charity in order to undertake Community Sponsorship. But they were relieved to find that it was sufficient to work under the auspices of the registered charity Father Hudson’s Care, the social care agency of the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham.

The Resettlement Plan

Groups wishing to do Community Sponsorship must apply to the Home Office, submitting a detailed Resettlement Plan explaining how they will achieve the various necessary outcomes. The members of the core committee took on different roles, in order to cover all these areas. These roles were:

  • chair of group – calling and chairing meetings, organising interpreters, key contact with the family

  • project manager – spearheading the work on the application, liaising with the Home Office and other key contacts early on

  • secretary/accommodation/benefits/employment – not all these roles need to go together, though it is logical to keep benefits and employment together

  • finance/budgeting – keeping track of the group’s budget, donations and expenditure, doing all the initial set up of bank account and utilities with the family, and counselling them on budgeting

  • health – setting up GP, dentist etc., accompanying the family to initial appointments

  • education (children) – investigating the schools situation for the initial application and then in the end (since the family had one 2-year-old child) setting up a nursery place

  • English-language (adults) – arranging English-language support

  • liaison with organisations that support refugees

Blackfriars was fortunate to be able to draw on members of the congregation who were both keen to be involved and who had relevant expertise to fill these roles or to advise occasionally. These included a health visitor, someone who works in the education system, a benefits expert, and an ESOL teacher, who was able to negotiate a free place for the couple at a language school. There was also a university lecturer who had Arabic-speaking PhD students who were able to act as interpreters. It was important, especially once the family had arrived, to have people in the group who could be available on weekdays during the day.

The group is also very grateful for the crucial support and advice they received from Oxford City Council and the local charities Asylum Welcome and Connection Support.

Accommodation

One of the major things which Community Sponsorship groups need to be able to organise for the refugee family is suitable accommodation. Central government will fund rent to housing benefit level, but this is usually much lower than the market rate. A member of Blackfriars congregation knew someone who worked for a large Oxford landlord and made the initial approach. The group then followed up with a formal proposal that as part of their corporate social responsibility, the property company would rent a flat to the family at the rate they would get in the housing benefit element of Universal Credit. Since the flat is in a fairly expensive part of Oxford, it meant the landlord forfeiting about £600/month. They agreed to this for a period of 2 years. (Other finance options open to groups doing Community Sponsorship could be to raise the funds to top up rent or even to buy a property, or to use a flat or house already owned by the group or church. In any case the accommodation must be a single unit with a separate entrance for the family.)The group also needed to gather all the necessary furnishings, crockery etc. for the flat. They did this by creating a list – rather like a wedding gift list. Thirty to forty families from the church contributed the items.

The Syrian family comes to Oxford

With all the preparations and paperwork completed and accepted by the Home Office, the Blackfriars group was told who the refugee family would be, just a few weeks before they arrived. The size of the accommodation they had to offer, a 2-bedroom flat, meant they were allocated a 3-person family.

The family arrived in January 2018, was welcomed at the airport and taken to their new home by a few members of the group together with a male and female interpreter. Over the next weeks and months members of the core group have helped the family to settle in. This has included induction to the local area, helping set up utilities and bank accounts, applying for benefits and accompanying to Job Centre appointments, and connecting the family with Arabic speakers, community and support groups. The aim is to empower the family, so that by the end of the two years they are able to live in the city independently.

Once the family had been in Oxford a few months, Blackfriars invited them to a lunch at the church after the Easter service. Since the family are Muslims, the church ensured that the food was halal. It was a good opportunity for the parishioners to meet the family, and the family and the congregation very much appreciated it.

The Blackfriars Community Sponsorship group sees what they have done as an expression of Christian love and a witness to others, as they show God’s love across the divides. They also value what they themselves learn from the family they are helping.

Inspired to do something similar?

If you would like to know more about the work of Blackfriars Community Sponsorship group, please contact Shirley Hoy: senteniaconsulting@gmail.com.

For more information about Community Sponsorship and stories from other groups around the country visit Sponsor Refugees (www.sponsorrefugees.org). Sponsor Refugees can also provide training, support and advice for groups wanting to do Community Sponsorship – contact Bekele Woyecha on 07504001756 or communitysponsorship@citizensuk.org

Perhaps you or your church are wondering what you can do to support refugees and asylum seekers? Please contact CCOW’s Churches Refugee Networking Officer, Joanna Schüder – joanna@ccow.org.uk 07774474601, who would love to talk to you and about this and to connect you with useful resources and people.