Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group
In Bicester people from different churches have worked together to prepare the local community to welcome refugees and to encourage and help the District Council to home and support refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
How the group got started
Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group began in 2015. The Minister of Orchard Baptist Church, Steve Barber, called an open meeting to discuss a possible response to the Syrian refugee crisis, as the ministers of the 13 churches that make up Churches in Bicester felt that “Jesus himself became a refugee as an infant, therefore should we not respond generously when faced with people in need.” From this meeting a small steering group was formed with Jazz Shaban and Rebecca Mitchell-Farmer as co-chairs. Rebecca had experience of campaigning locally against the detention of asylum seekers and Jazz of working as a humanitarian policy adviser for an international NGO.
Fundraising and Awareness Raising
The initial focus of the group was fundraising and awareness raising. In the light of negative media coverage and scaremongering about imagined negative consequences of large numbers of refugees coming to this country, the group felt it was important to inform the local community of facts about refugees and prepare it to receive refugees well. The group therefore organised further public meetings; the second one included an information sharing session by the British Red Cross. They had a stall at the Bicester Big Lunch and other events and got the newspapers involved and behind the refugees. , by advertising the open meetings in the events section of the local paper and always doing a press release whenever they did something, which the local press were very interested in and followed up. Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group have had an article in the Bicester Advertiser and contributed to one in the Independent.
The group also engaged with Cherwell District Council about its obligations under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS), the Government’s programme for bringing Syrian refugees directly from UNHCR camps near Syria to the UK, which asks councils to say how many they could accommodate. Throughout 2016 they ran a petition to encourage the Council to do its part, which led to the Council pledging to take six Syrian refugee families.
Having encouraged communities and the Council to receive refugees, the group also worked to find local volunteers willing to support refugees when they eventually arrived. At every event they sponsored or attended, they had sign-up sheets asking people to volunteer and put down what skills they could offer, e.g. form filling, help with transport, attending appointments, befriending, shopping, language practice.
It soon became apparent that local accommodation for refugee families was the key issue. Refugee families were not eligible for social housing and there were not enough private landlords prepared to take them.
So the group developed three potential schemes: the benevolent landlords scheme, the shared ownership scheme and the rent top-up scheme.
Based on Citizens UK’s benevolent landlords scheme, whereby landlords prepared to rent at housing benefit rates are found, Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group and Cherwell District Council put out a public call for benevolent landlords and people came forward. So the Council now has a number of houses available across the district.
The shared ownership scheme, whereby a house is purchased by a number of investors in order to house a refugee family, has begun, in partnership with a Christian housing charity. A suitable house has been identified, currently 19 investors have committed approximately three quarters of the necessary capital and further investors are being sought in order to complete the purchase.
A rent top-up scheme is a monthly payment, usually by direct debit, of charitable giving to top up housing-benefit-level rents to the market rate (approximately an extra £250 a month). It has not yet been actioned as a staff member would be needed to administer it. However it is an option for the future, if benevolent landlords signed up to the Cherwell SVPR Scheme were to put up the rent after the first year’s agreement.
Cherwell District Council appointed the charity Connection Support as provider for the legal and day-to-day support of families coming to the area under the SVPRS. Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group is working together with Connection Support and is part of the Refugee Co-ordination Group. The role of volunteers from Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group is to provide practical input, e.g. setting up the houses, befriending, orientation and language support. Connection set up an “Adopt a room” scheme, through which different church and community groups can each adopt a room and fit it out ready for the refugee family. Connection provides a list of what is needed which is disseminated to the churches and co-ordinated through members of Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group.
The first Syrian refugee family arrived in the Cherwell District in July 2017 (in Banbury), the second in August (in Kidlington) and a third in September (in Bicester). The local authorities have been advised to disperse the refugees in the community, rather than housing them together, but whether this is the best idea remains to be seen.
The Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group hopes that two further houses in Bicester and probably another in Kidlington will soon be available to host a family . Now that the Syrian refugee families are arriving, the group expects to be busy offering them practical and emotional support as they settle in to the area.
The group hopes that within the year the house in shared ownership will also be bought and ready for refugees. Bicester Christian Action, the charity which Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group is part of, would then be the landlord and manage the house, in co-operation with Connection and Cherwell District Council.
The group’s chairs will continue to feed in to the national debate, e.g. around the Dubs Amendment to allow more refugee children to come to the UK. An area they are particularly interested in pursuing is the plight of disabled refugees, whom local authorities are currently reluctant to take. They would like to campaign for the reinstatement of the disabled refugee programme within the SVPRS and for accessible accommodation.
Advice to those considering doing something similar
From their experience so far the group would advise anyone considering doing something similar to begin by looking at the big picture and being resourced and informed, for example through the UNHCR website, British Red Cross and Citizens UK. In deciding what your new group will do, make sure it fits with your capacity and the local need. Be prepared to challenge the local authority and MP, but be wise in the language used to do this.
If you would like to know more about the work of Churches in Bicester Refugee Support Group, which comes under the umbrella of Bicester Christian Action, please take a look at their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BicesterRefugeeSupport/?hc_ref=SEARCH&fref=nf or email them at firstname.lastname@example.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 – email@example.com, 07552948688, who would love to talk to you and about this and to connect you with useful resources and people.