By Captain Annette Booth
A year ago, I attended a meeting about asylum seeking in the UK and learnt that many people were being housed near me in the North-West of England by the Home Office. Individuals and families were placed in shared accommodation, most with little English language, whilst they awaited their asylum decisions.
I asked what the best way was to make contact, and was told to knock on doors and ask people directly. I went home dismayed and began to pray that God would help these hidden people find their way to us, at The Salvation Army Corps in Bootle.
And they started to come….
Firstly, we received an email from a local refugee organisation, asking if we could befriend a mother with three children who was feeling isolated. As we spent time with her, our eyes were really opened to the fight for a life free from harm, that many already traumatized people have to face every day in our community. We discovered first-hand some of the hurdles people seeking asylum faced if their application was to have any chance. We also learned that the wait for the right to remain, can be a very, very long one.
But we learnt something else, too. This beautiful family, who have so little and yet share so much, taught us about humility, about community, about a God who breaks through our fears and misconceptions and pours out his love, hope and peace into our lives through others.
Today, twelve months later, four other people seeking asylum walked into our centre. We are now supporting people claiming asylum from Russia, Ethiopia and Middle Eastern countries, and discovering a whole new hidden world that exists right on our doorstep. And it’s one where people are fighting for the right to live free from death threats, torture and oppression.
Unlike those arriving with refugee status who are given a package of assistance from the government, including access to ESOL classes (English for Speakers of Other Languages), and have the right to work, those seeking asylum have to find their own way with virtually no support. Imagine the challenge that is if you can hardly speak any English, are struggling with trauma or mental ill-health and are trying to school your children. How difficult it must be to find the help you need, make friends, survive even, and on only £5 a day, all in a very different culture to your own and in a place that you don’t know. Then there’s understanding the confusing immigration letters, the solicitors’ documentation, getting to Home Office appointments that are in another part of the country at 9.30am in the morning. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Unless you are fortunate to have a local charity that provides free ESOL lessons on your doorstep then you really have no opportunity to develop the language skills you need to negotiate your way through life.
And so, as a corps that’s where we feel led to go next — to set up ESOL classes for our new friends and to try to meet the language needs they so desperately require.
This week we had the opportunity to highlight and discuss some of these key issues with our local MP, Peter Dowd, and specifically the ‘right to work’ for asylum seekers.
Meanwhile we continue to support in whatever way we can. Our new friends happily volunteer in our centre drop-in, practice their conversational English, access on-line training and IT Skills at our Employment Plus group. They have become part of our very diverse and wonderfully blessed corps family. A beautiful picture of welcome and hospitality in the Kingdom of God is unfolding right here in Bootle.
And this is our prayer:
‘We seek Your kingdom first
We hunger and we thirst
Refuse to waste our lives
For You’re our joy and prize
To see the captive hearts released
The hurt, the sick, the poor at peace
We lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause
We are Your church
And we pray revive
From ‘Build your Kingdom here’ by Rend Collective
Captain Annette Booth is the leader of The Salvation Army in Bootle.