The reason for writing up our experience is that we hope our group could be used as a template by other groups of interested individuals and organisations who wish to alleviate the plight of people seeking refuge, both in the UK and abroad. Our experience is especially relevant if, like us, you live in an area like ours which doesn’t have any significant number of people seeking asylum or refuge living in the area.
Like many others, we came together as a group in late August 2015, in response to the shocking images on our TV screens of the drowning of the young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, attempting to escape the destruction of his homeland. We were outraged that such things were allowed to happen, that our government had made such a mean-spirited response, and that many politicians appeared to believe that people in Britain were mainly motivated by ‘fear of the other’.
We gathered together, a disparate group, by social media and word of mouth. We agreed to form a group to try to extend a welcome to people in need of refuge and to lobby our elected representatives to ask them to accept more of them.We then organised street stalls in Hay and in Brecon to hand out information, seek signatures upon a petition to our elected representatives and ask people to join us in shaping a group. Within a short period of time we had over 100 supporters.
On the streets we found only wholehearted support and collected more supporters and money. Indeed, the only angry voice was from a German woman who could not believe that we had to tell our government to do what she saw as the only possible humanitarian action! We sorted out a committee and built a database of the skills and other support people had to offer – English as a second language, caring, driving, writing, art & art therapy, offers of homes, clothing, weekend trips etc.
We decided against focusing initially on the collection of donated goods – tents, clothing, etc. – because we knew that we would be overwhelmed with the problems of collection, storage and delivery. So we produced a leaflet ‘Cash is kinder’ to explain. We would return later to collection, once we were better established.
We also realised that there were very few refugees or asylum seekers in our remote, rural area, and it was unlikely that many would arrive. However, we were close to cities (especially Swansea, Cardiff and Newport) with large and growing refugee populations. Following the example of Hiraeth Hope, a group based in Pembrokeshire, we decided that our best course would be to provide brief outings and stays for refugees to travel from the cities where they were based, to enjoy rest and recreation in our beautiful and peaceful countryside. In addition, we could supply volunteers, funding and other support to the various groups and agencies in the cities who were already working with the refugees. We decided against becoming a registered charity initially, as one of our main impulses for coming into being was to lobby our elected representatives on behalf of powerless refugees / asylum seekers.We affiliated to City of Sanctuary and became one of the 60 or so CoS groups all over Britain. We set up a Facebook page, a web-site (helped by City of Sanctuary) and a twitter account. We now have around 250 supporters on our database with whom we maintain contact by email. Between 25-30 people attend our monthly meetings. We were fortunate that within our first week we discovered the large social movement campaign for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers working under the banner of City of Sanctuary and within a short period we had linked up with the Swansea branch. Through City of Sanctuary we were able to make contacts with groups working with people seeking asylum and refuge such as Unity in Diversity, Share Tawe, SWARM and SHARP.
So what have we been doing?
We sent a petition to our MP, AM and council members and continue to send letters and sign appropriate petitions. We have attended Sanctuary in Parliament, in the Assembly and attended hustings for the forthcoming assembly elections organised by Citizens UK Cymru. We have met our MP and AM to discuss support for people seeking asylum and refuge. We maintain our Facebook page, website and twitter accounts with newsworthy items and links.
Monthly trips to our wonderful part of the world, the Brecon Beacons, for between 12 and 60 Swansea-based asylum seekers – which we term “Respite Days”. The way this has panned out is that a supporter has agreed to be a coordinator and has worked with their village or town and friends to organise the hosting. These outings are a rip-roaring success, both for the hosts and the guests. As the word has spread amongst the asylum-seeking community in Swansea, the numbers of people wanting to come up for the day has grown so that there is always a waiting list for any trip. And among the villages of our area there is now a keen spirit of competition (in a good way) to host a Respite Day. We can now hold approximately one per month.
We have collected a massive amount of clothing and household goods from our generous communities, all sorted and boxed by volunteers, ready for delivery to any family who needs them and also for distribution at Respite Days. Some of these have been taken by the carload to refugee agencies in both Cardiff and Swansea.
We also collected over 120 Christmas presents for seasonal children’s parties. We have supported a number of local initiatives of individuals going to Calais or Dunkirk, giving them publicity on our network and goods to deliver. One of our group spent a week in Calais helping one of the agencies there. We have donated money & computers to the refugee drop-in centre in Swansea.
A couple of our supporters have offered advice to a Swansea group on setting up as registered charity and applying for funding.
We are involving our 4 local secondary schools in our project. We hope for increased awareness about refugee issues amongst our young people who may have the opportunity to meet refugees from the City of Sanctuary speakers’ team and may become involved in our respite days.We have initiated an art
and photographic project with Swansea. The idea is to create a book of drawings of asylum seekers, accompanied by their written experience of why they are here; as our artist who is doing the project states, “to represent the asylum seeker as a human being”. We are looking at opportunities for collaborative work between artists in our communities and in the refugee community. A couple of our members are working with women asylum seekers in Swansea to set up a women’s asylum seekers support group.We also hope to build upon the work already done in Swansea on writing and poetry workshops and publication of books.
And we are ready to support Syrian refugees when they arrive in our area – we had hoped that families would have been safely living here by now but our council (Powys) seems to be moving slowly– we are about to try to encourage them to get a move on. We are a rural community of 3 small towns and a number of villages with a total population of around 12,000. Swansea has an estimated 1,000 refugees/asylum seekers, with around 200 using the main organisations we work with. They are delighted with our support.
Finally, what needs stating is that we are entirely a civil society group – we organise ourselves as individuals with an interest in supporting asylum seekers.We are not a voluntary organisation, a political group, nor a statutory agency, nor indeed a church group. That said we have many supporters from local authorities, the voluntary sector and who are church members and we have the support of nearly all our elected representatives. The reason we state this is because as a civil society group, we can act swiftly and don’t get bogged down in time-wasting bureaucracy – we are free to set our own agenda and to act as a pressure / lobbying group in the political arena.