Marlow Refugee Action
Marlow Refugee Action is a local group which has harnessed social media to inform the people of Marlow about the refugee crisis and inspire the community to practical, positive action to help refugees.
How it began
Marlow Refugee Action(MRA) began in October 2016. Vanessa Faulkner was moved by the image of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy who drowned on 2nd September 2015 as his family tried to reach Europe. She wanted to do something to help, so initially went to volunteer with the already established charity High Wycombe Helping Others, helping sort donations of aid for shipment to refugees overseas. There she reconnected with another volunteer from Marlow, Tom Doust. Both Vanessa and Tom felt that it would be good to have a group in Marlow.
Together Vanessa and Tom started a Facebook group, Marlow Refugee Action Group, in October 2016. The following day they went on local radio to publicise their initiative. The Facebook group soon gained momentum and over 400 members joined. Vanessa notes that social media enabled this local group to start up in a new way, without the need for committee meetings.
Marlow Refugee Action’s initial focus was on targeted appeals, in conjunction with High Wycombe Helping Others. They contributed to various appeals for clothing, hygiene items, tents, blankets & sleeping bags and other non-food items which went to refugees in Calais, Greece, Lebanon and Syria. They also did a Shoebox4Syria appeal. The group felt that asking people to give things was an easy way to start getting people to engage with the cause. It placed a donation bin in the porch of All Saints Church, Marlow, and organised several ‘Donate and Sort’ events in church halls. These events were even more helpful than the donation bin, as they gave opportunities for good conversations and getting the community involved. One girl who participated, for example, then got her school to do the shoebox appeal.
The group recognised the potential to raise considerable sums locally for refugees. Following Vanessa’s trip to Samos in June 2017 Marlow Refugee Action ran a “Sundowner for Samos” fundraiser in the garden of one of the co-founders and raised £695 for Samos Volunteers, as well as raising people’s awareness of the refugee crisis and the work of their local group. This went on to be an annual event. Other fundraisers have included Imad’s Syrian Kitchen pop-up restaurant meals (£40 ticket which included a £15 donation to MRA), a barn dance, the Marlow5 sponsored run, and a tombola on a stall at Marlow Carnival. By April 2019 the group had raised over £12,000. Having applied for charity status, in October 2018 Marlow Refugee Action finally received confirmation and their Registered Charity Number. This has enabled them to recover Gift Aid on donations and to approach trusts for funding. The group now fundraises for specific projects which have a particular connection with or relevancy to Marlow, and no longer collects and sends donated items to refugees.
One of the first projects supported by Marlow Refugee Action was Samos Volunteers. The group has a personal connection with the refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos, as a relative of one of the founders began as a volunteer there in Summer 2016 and became the co-ordinator for the Samos Volunteers. Visits to Samos by the founders have helped them to understand more about the refugee crisis and share what they learned with others. The overcrowded Samos refugee camp, designed for 650,is now home to over 7,000 refugees, with 5,000 estimated to be sleeping rough outside the camp. Most have been there for many months, unable to move on. Material aid and support with educational and recreational activities, given by Samos Volunteers, are very valuable. Also vital is legal advice, to help refugees navigate the Greek asylum procedure. Since August 2018, Marlow Refugee Action has been funding the Samos Legal Centre. When the coronavirus emergency forced most NGOs to stop work on Samos, the Marlow group sent funds to one still operating, Med’EqualiTeam, providing primary health care to refugees.
Marlow Refugee Action sees an important part of its role as informing the people of Marlow about the global and national situation with regard to refugees and about how they can help. This is particularly important since the refugee crisis has been less frequently in the headlines. To this end they share relevant Facebook posts, send out monthly newsletters by email (with paper copies for those not online), maintain a website, give local radio interviews and speak at local churches and other venues in the community, including assemblies in local primary schools.
In early 2018 Marlow Refugee Action, in conjunction with Churches Together in both Marlow and Maidenhead, organised a successful Lent initiative “Come to Calais”. Volunteers went in small groups, for a few days each, to join community groups providing food and practical aid to refugees living rough in northern France. Since then several groups from Marlow have been to Calais to volunteer, and a young man from Marlow spent 6 months as manager of the warehouse of provisions for refugees there. The group has further supported refugees sleeping rough in northern France by salvaging discarded camping equipment for them.
Partnerships supporting refugees locally
As well as helping displaced families overseas Marlow Refugee Action seeks to welcome and support refugees to the Marlow area. To this end the group has worked in partnership with several other charities locally. It has linked up with Marlow Language Centre to support refugees learning English with scholarships and conversation practice and is working with Refuaid to help refugees into employment. Marlow volunteers have become befrienders, tutors and donors for Wycombe Refugee Partnership. The most recent partnership is with Sanctuary Hosting who were invited to speak at an event in September 2019 – already one guest has been able to be placed with a host in Marlow. This activity had to be suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Involvement of local churches
Whilst Marlow Refugee Action is not a faith-based group, some of the individuals who are part of the group are active members of local churches. The group has been able to work with the Marlow 4U team of churches to help them focus on refugees. During Lent 2019, resources shared by CCOW were used for a number of activities. Refugee Prayer Service Materials developed by Revd Ben Kautzer at St Nicolas Church, Earley, were used at All Saints Marlow as the basis for morning services one Sunday and also for a thought provoking art installation around the themes of Escape, Displacement, Refuge and Peace. Marlow Refugee Action helped organise “Share the Journey”, a walk of solidarity around the team churches stopping along the way to consider and dwell on these topics. Churches Together in Marlow also adopted the USPG material on Migration and Movement (found through the CCOW website resource library) as their chosen Lent Study which was followed in four small groups.
Inspired to do something similar?
If you would like to know more about the work of Marlow Refugee Action, please take a look at their Facebook page and website (https://marlowrefugeeaction.org.uk/), listen to CCOW’s conversation with Vanessa Faulkner recorded in June 2020, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 07552948688, who would love to help you. Vanessa Faulkner is also very happy to work with anyone starting a new group, as she recognises the importance of having other groups as role models.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org 07552948688, who would love to talk to you and about this and to connect you with useful resources and people.
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 07552948688, who would love to talk to you and about this and to connect you with useful resources and people.
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.
Brightwell Supporting Refugees
Through Brightwell Supporting Refugees, a small village community has worked to make a real difference to the lives of refugee children in Jordan, through dedicated fundraising and direct personal contact.
How it started
In June 2015 Helen Connor, Ann Linton and Angela Lewis from the village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell in Oxfordshire went to a Refugee Week meeting in Oxford organised by Asylum Welcome. They were informed and inspired by the speaker, Dawn Chatty of the Refugee Studies Centre, who explained the history of the refugee crisis in Syria. They felt that their relatively well-off village could dosomething to help and that it would be good for others in the village to be informed about this issue. To enable this, they organised a public meeting in the village in November 2015 at which The Very Reverend Bob Wilkes, a trustee of Asylum Welcome, spoke. This led to the formation of Brightwell Supporting Refugees (BSR). While the newly formed group had a mission and objectives statement, a bank account and a committee of 9 trustees, it was originally a small unregistered charity. The group has since obtained recognition for their charity from HMRC and is applying for registration with the Charities Commission.
Much thought was given to what specifically the group should do. Initially they had thought that refugees would come to Oxfordshire and they would support them, but as a group in nearby Wallingford was preparing to do this and the anticipated numbers did not arrive, BSR made other plans. The group wanted to make it easier for refugees to return home, when circumstances allowed, by giving help as close to their home as possible, but also to give them a personal contact here, should they eventually be among those who come to the UK. Within the group there was also a particular interest in helping with education.
Helping Refugees in Jordan
A village resident who worked in the diplomatic service knew Catherine Ashcroft, who had founded Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ). HRJ is a grass roots organisation of volunteers, who support community charities, including those running schools for refugee children in northern Jordan, near the Syrian border. HRJ is supported by and comes under the umbrella of Mercy Corps.
BSR decided to make support for HRJ their main focus. Through HRJ, Brightwell Supporting Refugees began by supporting a school in north west Jordan, which was teaching over 400 children over a wide area of informal tented settlements. Their main focus this year has been to support Azraq School in East Jordan which was set up by HRJ for Syrian refugees there. It has also given support to Hope school for younger refugee children and local Jordanians, south of Amman. Funds from BSR have contributed to teachers’ salaries, rent of school premises, books, clothes, IT equipment, bus transport to Azraq school and other necessities.
So far BSR has raised over £10,000. Approximately half the funds have come from individual donations and half from fundraising events. These have included a pub quiz, stall at the village music festival, Middle Eastern lunch, concerts, children’s pop-up stall in their street and a talk by a local film producer. The challenge is to maintain this momentum.
The partnership with HRJ has been very helpful, as it is a recognised group that because of the volunteers who run it and logistical support from its partners, is able to spend all donations on the projects themselves. HRJ is also very good at giving information about precisely how money is spent: For example recently people knew that a £10 ticket for an event paid for 1 school bag filled with books and stationery materials.
Connecting Brightwell school with Azraq school
Over the past year BSR has been able to nurture a connection between Brightwell cum Sotwell Primary School and Azraq School in Jordan. This began with BSR trustees going in to Brightwell cum Sotwell Primary School to talk to the children. Then Year 6 read a story about refugees moving from Syria to Jordan and Year 5 and 6 pupils began to exchange letters with their counterparts in Jordan. In May 2017 when Catherine Ashcroft visited Brightwell, she received the Brightwell teacher’s email address, which facilitated the contact between the teachers in the two countries. On 6th July 2017 a class from Brightwell cum Sotwell Primary School was able to Skype with children at Azraq School, singing songs to each other and talking a little – a wonderful experience.
The personal contact between Brightwell and the refugees in Jordan was strengthened some more when several of the trustees travelled to Jordan in October 2017 (at their personal expense) to visit the HRJ schools and meet refugees and charity workers. It also helped support the local economy with their tourism. The insights and impressions which they gained from this trip will no doubt be beneficial in further informing their local community and developing the work of BSR.
Inspired to do something similar?
If you would like to know more about the work of Brightwell Supporting Refugees, please take a look at their leaflet and their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/653573804830781/?ref=br_rs) or contact either of the joint chairs: helenconnor21 [at] btinternet.com or annlinton1 [at] hotmail.co.uk. 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 – firstname.lastname@example.org, 07552948688, who would love to talk to you about this and to connect you with useful resources and people.
Faringdon Syrian Refugees Group
Faringdon Syrian Refugees Group (FSRG) is an inspiring example of how people from local churches, wanting to do something to help refugees, have been able to organise themselves, gather public support, and contribute to the resettlement of Syrian refugee families in their area.
How it began
FSRG began in January 2015. As the refugee crisis developed, many people in the churches in Faringdon felt compassion for the situation of refugees and wanted more to be done to help them. Reggie Norton, a lifelong campaigner for peace and justice, brought together representatives from the five churches in Faringdon. Guided by helpful resources from Citizens UK, the group decided to lobby for Syrian refugees to be resettled in the area. In November 2015 George Gabriel of Citizens UK came to give their group a training session. Then they began by approaching local organisations and services to assess their potential willingness and ability to provide support for any resettled refugee families. They were overwhelmed by the positive response they received.
In the meantime, in September 2015, the UK government made a commitment to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over 5 years and established the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme, through which refugees would be brought directly out of UNHCR camps near Syria. The local council, Vale of White Horse, agreed to resettle 6 such families through this scheme. FSRG determined to do what it could to make this resettlement happen as quickly and smoothly as possible.
Gathering public support
FSRG organised a “Refugees Welcome” public meeting on 8th April 2016 to inform the public what was being done locally and how they could help. Representatives from several local support groups as well as the County Council spoke. The group were very pleased with the success of this event, attended by about 80 people, including Town, District and County Councillors. Despite some prior negative views expressed on social media, no one came in opposition to the meeting; rather the atmosphere was very positive.
Working with the British Red Cross
The District Council then appointed the British Red Cross as the service provider for refugees in the area and FSRG began partnering with the Red Cross – to date (by May 2017) 4 Syrian refugee families have been settled, out of the 8 families to be accommodated across the merged local authorities of South [Oxfordshire] and Vale.
Homes for Syrian refugee families
As the refugees are housed in empty private rented properties and arrive with little or nothing, their houses need to be furnished and equipped. The Red Cross provides a list of what is needed, which FSRG makes available to all those on the group’s supporters list (now 120 people from the churches and the wider community) in the form of a shared Google Docs spread sheet. People simply put their name against whatever item(s) they commit to provide – be it a rug, bedside lamps, a washing -up set or food cupboard supplies- and deliver them to the home of the FSRG co-ordinators. The co-ordinators then take a van full of donations for the houses to the Red Cross. Seeing the photographs of the lovingly fitted-out houses and hearing how much the refugee families have appreciated their new homes – a place to rest at last after all they have been through – is very rewarding to the group.
The FSRG is continuing to support the resettlement of Syrian refugee families in the district. Working closely with local councillors there is also a hope that, once the commitment to accommodate the 8 families has been met by the end of 2017, the successful exercise could be repeated to help more refugee families. The group also continues to lobby the local councils to accept some unaccompanied refugee children, who are in urgent need. One volunteer from the group has gone through the process to be approved as a foster carer specifically in order to be able to foster unaccompanied refugee children.
The FSRG has faced some challenges. It has taken some time to get to the point of being able to welcome refugee families to the area. It is frustrating that despite the good will and potential to offer support within the community the arrival of refugees to the area has been slow, with as yet no unaccompanied children. Finding enough private landlords with suitable properties willing to take refugees has not been easy and continues to be a challenge. Also, some organisations felt the subject was too political for them to publicly lend their support. The vast majority of local organisations and individuals, however, have been supportive of FSRG’s aims – and through good collaborative work great outcomes have been achieved.
Inspired to do something similar?
If you would like to know more about the work of the Faringdon Syrian Refugees Group, please contact Reggie Norton – reggienorton [at] talktalk.net or Sjoerd Vogt – sjoerd [at] vogt.org.uk.
Perhaps you are inspired to set up a similar project in your area? Please get in touch with CCOW’s Churches Refugee Networking Officer, Joanna Schüder – email@example.com 07552948688, who would love to talk with you about this and to connect you with useful resources and people.