Wycombe Refugee Partnership
Wycombe Refugee Partnership is a multi-faith, multi-cultural organisation which resettled nine refugee families in its first year of operation. Despite a petition and lobbying, the local council voted not to accept refugees coming under the government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), so the group chose a different way to help refugees in the UK.
Acting Together With Loving Kindness
In December 2015 the Revd Hugh Ellis, Vicar of All Saints Church and Vice-Chair of the Council for Christian Muslim Relations in High Wycombe, convened a multi-faith group called “Acting Together with Loving Kindness.” In March 2016 the Syrian refugee Ahmad Al-Rashid, who has since featured in the BBC Exodus documentary, gave an inspiring talk at All Saints Church. The church was packed, with as many Muslims as Christians in the congregation.
All of a sudden the group Acting Together With Loving Kindness then found themselves accommodating their first family. One of the organisers of that meeting at All Saints Church suggested to Ahmad, who had refugee status and had just received a family reunification visa, that he come to High Wycombe. A week later volunteers were showing him a suitable flat, for which the landlord had waived the deposit. Ahmad’s wife was due to be arriving the next day and within 24 hours the group had gathered from the community all the things needed to set up their home. The family moved into the flat in April 2016.
Through Ahmad, the group had hit upon what was to become its model: resettling people who had come to the UK as asylum-seekers, been granted refugee status and leave to remain and then obtained a family reunification visa.
The group soon decided that it should become a registered charity, as this would open various doors, including public perception and funding applications. The name of the group was also changed to Wycombe Refugee Partnership to make it clearer what the group was about. WRP gained charity status in July 2016. The trustees were drawn from the most committed of those who had been part of Acting Together with Loving Kindness. There are currently eight trustees, each with specific responsibilities covering Strategic Development, Governance, Financial Affairs, Properties, Co-ordination and Logistics, Human Resources, Refugees and Education. Together with the Safeguarding Officer and Minutes Secretary they make up the WRP Core Group, which comprises 4 Muslims, 5 Christians and 1 agnostic.
Identifying, housing and supporting refugee families
WPR seeks to identify suitable couples or families. Often they are recommended by other organisations or by word of mouth from families whom WRP has already housed. All potential refugee families are interviewed to assess their suitability, e.g. their mental stability and willingness to work straight away. The group is not able to support single refugees, but can pass these on to other contacts in the region who may be able to take them.
Once a house or flat is found volunteers from the group clean and set it up, as needed. The refugee family is loaned the deposit and up to two months’ rent by WRP, while they are getting their income together, to be paid back when the family is ready to do so.
WRP has generally not found it fruitful trying to find accommodation for the refugees through estate agents. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find private rented accommodation for refugees (in part due to the benefit cap and buy-to-let mortgages). So WRP has found some guarantors, which helps greatly. Guarantors accept liability towards the letting agent for the total rent for the 6 or 12 month tenancy period (minus the initial two months which are covered by WRP), in the extremely unlikely event of the refugees having neither employment nor benefit income to pay the rent and the WRP model having failed.
Each refugee family is supported by a team of WRP volunteer befrienders, usually three to six people, one of whom is the chief befriender (sometimes this person is also the interpreter). The team includes people from WRP’s jobs team who help the refugees to find work as soon as possible, but as a safety net sign them up for housing benefit and job seekers allowance. Volunteers from WRP’s education team help the parents to apply for school places for the children, provide an English tutor for the adults to supplement the government ESOL provision and, if children are behind with their schooling, also provide a tutor for them.
Usually within three to six months the refugee families have established themselves, formed their own networks and can manage without WRP’s support.
One of the challenges which WRP faces is finding refugees who fit the criteria for the assistance the group can offer. Whilst they had initially expected to be overwhelmed by refugee families, in fact they often find themselves advertising. They wonder whether this is because their offer sounds too good to be true to refugees who have been disappointed by traffickers in the past. They have also found that some refugees are taken in by the myth that they can simply turn up at the Council which must then house them, and that many want to live in London rather than High Wycombe.
A further challenge is getting enough volunteers, particularly ones with specific skills, managing them and keeping them feeling part of the whole. WRP now has about sixty volunteers, plus many people who help with one-off things like shopping. The volunteers are overseen and managed by the ten members of the core group, each of whom has a specific brief, e.g. one does the database, another looks after the volunteers. The group is looking to improve its induction and ongoing training for its volunteers, seeking to train someone up to be able to deliver induction training to the volunteers.
Funding is an ongoing challenge for WRP and they are always looking for more financial support. WRP is very grateful for the way that the local communities, individuals and different faith groups respond to appeals and fundraising events with donations of money and in kind. WRP is currently looking for a property investor who would buy a house in High Wycombe which WRP would manage.
Advice to others
To anyone considering doing something similar to help refugees, some tips from WRP are:
- Be sure you have the capacity for all the work, including enough thoroughly motivated volunteers who are happy to be monitored and supported
Get a basic website and Facebook page done for the group, so people can check you are a legitimate organisation and for communication
Register as a charity, e.g. as a “Charitable Incorporated Organisation”, so you can apply for funding, and follow the wording of the Charity Commission’s models as closely as possible
When setting up houses for refugee families put (washed) teddy bears on all beds!
If you would like to know more about the work of Wycombe Refugee Partnership please take a look at their website, www.wycombe-refugees.org or their Facebook page Refugees Welcome in Wycombe https://www.facebook.com/groups/1069995593044656/?ref=br_rs or email them at: HWrefugees@gmail.com .
Perhaps you are inspired to set up a similar project in your area? Please have a chat with CCOW’s Churches Refugee Networking Officer, Joanna Schüder – email@example.com 07823686568, who would love to talk to you and about this and to connect you with useful resources and people.