Mosques in North-East London with Churches and Christian groups are working together to sponsor a Syrian refugee family who arrive tomorrow, 26 June 2019, to start their new life in the UK.
The Redbridge Community Sponsorship project – a partnership between South Woodford Mosque, Balfour Road Mosque, Ilford Methodist Church, Ilford Salvation Army, St. Thomas of Canterbury RC Church and Wanstead Quakers – was initially formed in 2017.
By Major Gordon Cotterill
In his eyes…
I looked into his eyes and I saw why we had invested so much of ourselves into this project. “Thank you thank you thank you….”, we were at the airport and the Syrian family we will be sponsoring were with us in arrivals. The boys were beyond themselves with happiness. Jamal looks at his family and then me and whispers ‘thank you’.
Communicating through google translate Jamal reads my message, “we are looking forward to sharing life with you”, he looks up at me, tears well up. Full of emotion Jamal speaks into the phone and shows me the translation, “nothing I can say will let you know how grateful we are… we are safe”.
Out in the garden, high above an EasyJet Airbus banks and changes direction, the engines whine in protest, Jamal violently sucks in air, ducks and looks at me with eyes of terror. For a moment hope cowered. I try to reassure but sense the indelible memories of a life only seen by me on the BBC. With a sharp exhale of relief the moment is gone, and I recognise what we have done through Community Sponsorship.
Tonight a family sleep safely in a home lovingly prepared by a church I am immensely proud. Tomorrow is the first day of a new life for us all!
In her eyes…
Three years of planning, form filling, team building. Three years of fund raising, house buying, permission seeking. Three years of anticipation, emotion, excitement and the moment had arrived, suddenly our passport photograph family were stood with us. Suddenly Community Sponsorship was more than an idea, a project, more than names, this was real.
Beyond the chaos of suitcase upon suitcase upon suitcase and translated hellos was Rana. Below her perfect hijab, were mother eyes beyond tiredness, telling an unimaginable story. What does it take to choose an uncertain future, to trust her family to passport photographs? Everything for this moment risked, Gatwick her portal from a life known to a life unknown. Certainty, albeit fragmented, gone. Heavy, grey eyes reflect belongings and loved ones left behind for an unshaped dream.
Bewildered she trusts and we leave.
Not a week later she explains, “for many months I have not slept, who are these people? Only photos and names”.
We’re eating, sharing, laughing. Two cultures collide to create something new over chicken shawarma, tabbouleh, yogurt and sweet sweet coffee. The room dominated by our welcome sign, a comforting reminder, an art installation of corporate love. Her eyes now different. She laughs, her head rolls back and the room is full of joy. The faceless greyness of uncertainty replaced with the beauty and deep colours of hope.
Gordon Cotterill is the Corps Officer at Sutton Salvation Army. You can read more of Gordon’s reflections on his blog Urban Army.
This week is Refugee Week – an annual programme of events highlighting the contribution refugees make to UK communities, and countering negative and misleading narratives about those seeking sanctuary.
It wasn’t that long ago I received a stark reminder of why such a week is necessary.
‘NICK COKE IS A RACE TRAITOR’. There before my eyes was a notice stuck to a lamppost. Six words in large, bold capital letters shouting out on a white background – the word ‘RACE’ enlarged for extra emphasis. Further on up the street I could see another, fixed to a pillar at the entrance to the supermarket carpark. I drove on, got out of the car and ripped it down. Apparently there had been more up and down the high street near to the church where I was shortly to speak about the life-changing work we do with vulnerable refugees. Early arrivals had spotted and removed most of them, except as I drove away at the end of the evening I caught sight of another further on up the road. It was late, I was tired and wanted to go home, I drove on.
Why would someone do this? Was it because of my billing on the church’s publicity as the national Refugee Response Co-ordinator for The Salvation Army, and a ‘supporter of refugees’? In truth I found it pretty shocking to be named and targeted in this way. It’s never happened before, I’m not convinced it’ll happen again – but it would be foolish to pretend that it doesn’t reveal something disturbing about the precarious times in which we live.
We talk about a ‘refugee crisis’ but it seems to me that the crisis is as much about our own hearts and minds as it is anything else.
Four years I arrived at Heathrow Airport with my eight month old baby. We had travelled for six hours by plane and six hours to the airport from my home state in Nigeria. I had come to the UK to find safety after we had to leave our home because we weren’t safe there anymore and my family couldn’t keep us safe if we stayed in the country.
As we stepped into the airport I felt lost. I didn’t have anyone to meet me and I didn’t have much on me. I didn’t know how expensive life in the UK was. I tried to get a taxi but couldn’t believe how much they cost so tried to bargain about the cost. It’s funny now but it wasn’t then.
In the coming days I stayed with some relatives of my mum and I started the process of claiming asylum and found a lawyer to help me. But I couldn’t stay there because she was hearing bits of why I’d had to leave home and she wasn’t comfortable with us in the house. This was really hard. I didn’t know where else to go as she was the only person I knew in the UK. I felt so alone but I kept going because I have to be there for my child.
My lawyer called the Home Office and they said they couldn’t help us and I needed to go to the nearest police station. I was so scared. I thought they would arrest me or take my child away. But I had nowhere else to go. Eventually, they took us to a bed and breakfast in north London. When I got that room I was happy because at least it was a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in. Everyone in the B&B was in temporary accommodation. This was the first place where I made friends and I’m still best friends with one of the ladies I met then.
My faith has always been important to me and so I quickly tried attending the local Catholic church, as I had been raised a Catholic back home. I invited a new lady in the B&B to come with me to church but people there weren’t really welcoming to her children and sent them away because of the children’s disability. I didn’t feel I could go back there after that and so tried the church across the road. This was The Salvation Army. It was a small church but it soon became our new home. The second Sunday we walked in and everyone greeted us by name. It meant such a lot. We were all alone and yet someone cared enough to remember our names. They hugged us. This was the first place that we actually felt welcome in the UK.
We stayed in that area for six months. Every two weeks I had to go to London Bridge to sign to prove I hadn’t disappeared undergound. Nobody could help me with the application for support from the National Asylum Support Service, known as NASS, so I was always in the library. This was hard. My child would be screaming and I would be trying to type my application as this was the only place I could do it. We were living on £20 a week from the council but half of this was going on the travel to sign at London Bridge. The health visitor helped me to get some food from the local food bank and another family in the B&B, who were slightly better off us, would share their food with us.
Eventually my application for NASS support was accepted and they provided us with some accommodation in another part of London and NASS subsistence allowance. Our accommodation is a single room for us to eat, play, study and sleep in. We have to negotiate with other families in the house for access to the shared kitchen, laundry and bathroom facilities. We receive a total of £72 a week to provide for all our other needs: food, clothing, medicine, travel, toiletries, study materials and phone bills. There is little left over to save for unexpected costs.
People at the corps told me there was a Salvation Army near to my new house but we kept going back despite the cost of travel because when you don’t have too many connections you don’t want to let go of good relationships when you don’t know where you’ll be next. I’d already had to leave my family and friends in Nigeria, I didn’t want to lose my new church famiy too.
Eventually one of the ladies told me she knew the officers in my new area so I decided to try the toddler group. I really liked it the first time I came because it was a big room and they didn’t have to turn people away like at so many of the children’s centre groups in the area. I got to know the people running the group and discovered it was a Salvation Army thing to be welcoming! So I started coming to the toddler group regularly. As the corps officer picked up a little about my situation she made it possible for me to attend the group for free. £2 doesn’t seem like a lot but when you only have a small amount to live on, it is. The corps also runs a Baby Bank, which helped me with clothes, toys and equipment for my child. They’ve also helped me with oyster costs to visit from solicitor, food parcels and clothing for myself, as well as a nursery deposit when my child was able to start nursery.
Eventually, I began attending the local corps on a Sunday too because now I had family here too. When my child was three I bought a birthday cake to church and wanted to celebrate with our family at church. I was just about to go and light the candles to bring it in when I turned round and saw that a friend had done it for me. It made me feel like I was at home, with my family who just help without being asked.
My first application for asylum was denied. I felt awful. I had hoped that soon everything would get better and now it seemed it would get worse. The Home Office said my case wasn’t strong enough and I should return to my country. My solicitors were able to appeal and my corps officer wrote a letter explaining her understanding of my situation. She also came with me so that she could look after my child while I went into courtroom. I didn’t want to leave my child behind with a babysitter because I was scared they would take me away and separate me from her. You can’t imagine how much it means to have someone safe to look after your child nearby when you’re attending court.
My appeal was denied. When I first got the letter I didn’t want to tell anyone because it hurt so much. I had been expecting to tell good news and then it was the opposite of what I was expecting. It broke my heart and I didn’t want to break other people’s heart. Over the past four years I have seen other people around me – my neighbours and my friends – receiving leave to remain and being able to move on with their lives. I am still waiting. I need to make a fresh application and have some new evidence to add but the task of starting again and looking for a new solicitor feels so daunting. I am tired of fighting. I am tired of waiting. I am tired of my dreams for me and my child being put on hold.
But I am a person of faith. Being an asylum seeker does not define me. Jesus Christ defines me. I am using this time to learn at college and develop skills for the future. I dream that when this is over, I can train as a midwife and care for women in their moments of pain.
I am an adherent member of the Salvation Army and sing in the worship group. I help in the Baby Bank and our charity shop, and am part of the team who make Messy Church happen. People at the corps see something in me that I can’t always see myself. They encourage me to use my gifts, even now while I am waiting.
The first time that I helped in the Baby Bank I was really happy – and quite jealous of the family worker who gets to do this for her job! I knew the process because we’d filled out the forms before. As the lady I met told me her story, I recognized so many things. She was living through the same experiences as us. I didn’t know there were other families like mine. I thought it was just us and I felt so happy that I was able to help her. We’re not the only ones. Before I felt like I was a problem person but I know now that there are so many people like me who are bravely living through difficult times because we trust that the UK is a safe place for people who have lost everything.
Phoebe is a member of a Salvation Army Corps in London.
By Gill Bonner
Thursday midday and we’re waiting on the platform at Sutton station for a train to London Bridge. F asks me if London is left or right? It reminds me that this is his first trip into the city centre, his first experience of a UK train ride (and yes it was on time!) The new vocabulary we have learnt so far today includes “platform, departs, rails, ticket barrier, travelcard, return journey”. All very useful and all tucked away in his incredibly agile brain. I am constantly amazed at the progress this man is making with his English after only 7 weeks in the country after having spent 7 years in Jordan living as a refugee family from Syria. However, those are not going to be the most important words we learn today. This is not just part of F’s cultural orientation programme, not just part of the “To do list” we have as a Community Sponsorship Team. This trip has come out of the blue after a text message received from our interpreter at 11.15pm last night and a conversation with a German school teacher at 8am this morning. The most important words for today are going to be “my younger sister, clever, university, pharmacist, Dortmund, more than 4 years, 18 years old.” This description of his sister dominates our conversation as we travel to meet her in Parliament Square.
We had known that F’s sister, now living in Germany having been re-settled there with her parents and other younger siblings after fleeing the Syrian conflict, was coming to England on a school visit. They hadn’t seen each other for over 4 years. He was of course desperate to see her but we couldn’t get any real details and there were many safeguarding issues to consider. We didn’t even know where in England she would be or for how long. To be honest, we thought the school would not allow her to leave the group to be with him even if we could establish contact. But it happened. The group were staying in Margate but having a day out in London and one of the teachers agreed to meet us and let A spend time with F and his family as long as I was there and could get her back to the group in 4 hours time!
After a quick photo opportunity on Westminster Bridge it was back on the train to Sutton to see the rest of the family in their home. This was all that mattered, to share food together, to see where they are living, to spend time with the children – the youngest now a cheeky and endearing almost-5- year-old as opposed to the baby she remembered.
We were back on Sutton station platform 1, now there were 3 of us. The emotions were high. How is it possible to experience happiness and sadness simultaneously? We managed it! She was anxious that we would be late at the meeting place (North Greenwich tube station) Florian, her teacher, had been very clear that we HAD to be there at 5.30pm (we were!) F had a carrier bag of food for her to take for the coach journey back to Margate, fruit, flatbreads, the remnants of a meal lovingly prepared and eaten in haste.
I haven’t tried to describe the moment they met or the moment they said goodbye. Both were equally heart-stopping events which were a privilege to share, not only for me but for Florian, the teacher willing to take me on trust and the school’s Principal too who came to express his delight that this had been achieved. We exchanged thanks to each other, we recognised the love that was in our presence and I experienced once more the “thin space” when the human and the divine are both equally present and tangible despite being with people I had only just met!
Our journey back to Sutton was quieter, thoughtful, realistic but optimistic. We reflected on the day. F was full of praise for London’s transport system, for the police presence he saw during rush hour in London Bridge station, for the way people offered seats to others on the tube, for the orderly way in which thousands of people went about their lives. It all makes him feel safe and glad that his family are now in a place where they can travel safely and trust strangers. The most frequently used words of the day? “Thank you, happy, safe, you’re welcome!” Said by both of us – over and over again!
Gill Bonner is project manager of the Community Sponsorship of Refugees scheme at Sutton Salvation Army Corps..
By Major Jonny Smith
I have to be honest with you and declare at the beginning of this post my language inabilities! Yes, I perhaps represent many English people by declaring that I only speak my native language. So, with this in mind, it’s fair to say that whenever I go abroad I am as good as useless when it comes to understanding another language. I often find myself in restaurants not having a clue what to order, and ending up with something I really did not want!
I can laugh about this, but what about people who, through no fault of their own, have come to live the UK and do not speak or understand English? This is the position many refugees and asylum seekers find themselves in. In some areas access to language support can very limited or non-existent for particular groups. This can lead to already traumatized people becoming even more marginalized. Vulnerable people can find themselves in difficult situations simply because they are unable to understand what is being communicated to them.
When we study the bible, time and time again God makes it clear to us that we need to look after those on the margins of the community in which we reside. In response to this and also to what I see happening in so many communities, I wanted to create opportunities for corps to put on professionally run English classes. Importantly, I had a vision that these classes would be an opportunity not only for English to be taught, but where people from corps and community could come together, enter each other’s cultures, and as a result of this journey, learn more about each other.
With a lot of help from the Legacy Department, funding was identified. As a result several corps have now applied and had funding approved: Bootle, Camberwell, Liverpool Stoneycroft, Manchester Central and Sutton to name but a few. I have had the privilege of visiting some of them and seen for myself the beautiful sight of people from different backgrounds gathered together – some who speak English as a first language sharing time together with those who speak little to no English. It has been uplifting to see community being built, English being learned, and lives being changed for the better.
Captain Annette Booth, Bootle Corps, has used the funding to start some English language classes specifically for those seeking refugee status. She excitedly reports:
“This all started with a prayer and an understanding that our new family ministry would come from people of other cultures. We are currently praying for God to send us children workers so we can start a story time using Christian story books to teach English with our student families and maybe open up to other families in the area.”
Annette and the Bootle Corps have been on this journey for a while, yet she is still blown away by the opportunities that God is presenting to her each day…
“We continue to be amazed at the opportunities we have with our students and their families. We could have never have imagined the challenges, the learning and rich blessings our students would bring as God unfolds his work here at Bootle – but what a privilege is ours!”
Importantly, this money is not just for a select group of corps – it is for any group that is looking to positively impact people in their local community who do not speak English. If you want to find out further information on how to apply, please email me at: jonny,email@example.com
Major Jonny Smith is The Salvation Army’s Intercultural Mission Officer
By Hilary Gambling
Way back in 2017 I read an article in The Salvationist magazine written by Major Nick Coke where he talked about the desire within his Raynes Park Corps and community to do something practical to help those caught up in the Syrian Crisis. It was powerful stuff and at our Corps Leadership meeting I floated the idea that we, at Bristol Easton Corps explore the possibility of us becoming involved in this, too. A few weeks later Nick visited the corps and on a Thursday evening a large number of corps folk attended to hear more about this ‘Community Sponsorship’ thing!
We were off and running with enthusiasm – preparing skills lists and looking for property. While in the background we were able to continue meeting with other groups in the city and attending a variety of forums with council officers, the Home office and other groups within the South West, that elusive landlord and property never materialized. It seemed as though this wasn’t perhaps the path God was wanting us to follow… but, in His time, we got our property in the sunny seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. This is some way from Bristol but still commutable and many of our volunteer group are based in and around North Somerset. And so, a small but beautifully formed volunteer group came together. Our council have been brilliant but like many others their support workers are over stretched so having both streams ready to support the family has been ideal.
The Syrian family of 4 arrived on 24th April 2019: dad Khaled, mum Sanaa, son Anas (aged 5) and daughter Jana (aged 2). They came from living in one room in Lebanon which had a makeshift stove on the table and which regularly flooded with dirty water. Corps volunteers helped to make the house ready for occupation through decorating, gardening, furniture moving and of course, cleaning post renovation. We discovered ‘skills’ we never knew we had and actually built a new fence almost from scratch – it’s a very good fence and looks fabulous!
It’s early days for the family but so far we have supported them by taking them to health assessment appointments, the doctor, the dentist, assisting with benefits and childcare during these lengthy appointments and of course, familiarizing them with the local area. The nearest halal butcher we have been able to find even after talking with other members of the Muslim community in Weston, is in Bristol, so it was out pleasure to introduce the whole family to trains and riding on a train as we journeyed to the supermarket!
There has been lots of laughter as we both struggle to make ourselves understood – Google translate is great but can translate the oddest things at times. Explaining recycling was a challenge and we are still struggling to reach understanding, as far as we can tell, with the heating. Previous experience has shown that the families like to have the heating on high but have the doors and windows open and as we all know that costs! Anas has started school and is building up his time each day and that has been good for him and will help the family settle better into a routine. Jana will start nursery this coming week and mum and dad have started their English lessons – having struggled to learn much Arabic ourselves; we wish them the best!
This past Saturday saw the family meeting a larger number of folk from the corps – people who had helped with the house preparation, the support group and others who have shown a real interest. This was a good sized group – not too big to be intimidating but a great opportunity for the family to meet new friends and practice their English. The weather drowned out the planned BBQ but warm inside one of our members houses, we all shared food together. Our family are making friends – how wonderful that must be for them to be able to relax and speak their own language! They have built up a good number of new friends and they all shared together for Eid celebration. We count it a huge privilege to be with our family; to have brought them to a place of safety and to give them the opportunity of a good future is an honour and not something everyone has the chance to do. Many within our corps at Bristol Easton are not able to be involved in a physical sense, but they are interested to talk about the family and are looking forward to meeting up with them very soon.
Hilary Gambling is a member of Bristol Easton Salvation Army; she is the Treasurer and the Holiday Club leader and leads the Community Sponsorship Support Team.