By Jon Beech, Director of Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network
It has been seven months since City of Sanctuary in Leeds held their first public meetings, in response to the Refugee Crisis in Europe. At these events, over 200 people stepped forward to offer their support and solidarity with displaced people from across the world, and asked “what can we do to help?”
For the first few weeks after the images of Alan Kurdi made front page news, organizations such as Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network (LASSN) were overwhelmed. Most days, there were only a couple of us in the office, attempting to support people despite having just lost staff due to a lack of funding. Although we managed to drag on Trustees and other volunteers to help staff the phones, even they couldn’t manage to juggle the ten or twelve phone calls a day asking “what can we do to help?” with the various TV crews and journalists desperate to meet Syrian families.
We put on special training and awareness sessions for new volunteers, recruiting and inducting as many new people in two months as we had in the past two years. In the end we had to stop. There are only so many volunteers an organisation offering 50 hours of Volunteer Management a week can support safely. And 300 felt like the upper limit.
Frankly, we were also a bit worried that potential supporters and volunteers might walk away when they found out the truth: that Yorkshire has half the number of asylum seekers in 2015 than it had in 2005; that fewer than 4% of all the asylum seekers living in Leeds are from Syria; that we do not have lists of Syrian refugees wishing to lodge with British well-wishers.
Instead, we explained how well the new fences erected in Calais were working, and preventing people from entering the UK. We explained other aspects of recent Government policy: how asylum support rates to families had already been cut, about the contents of the Immigration Bill, and the overall intention to create an extremely hostile environment for refused asylum seekers. We introduced them to people with apparently compelling reasons for claiming asylum, but whose claims had been rejected, and who had been made destitute.
But amazingly, the new supporters stayed. And what a difference they have made.
- They’ve helped by offering a spare room for the night to 84 people who would otherwise have slept rough – tripling the number of nights Grace Hosting has been able to offer.
- More 400 members of 14 congregations have made their churches and synagogues into places of Sanctuary, hosting a Winter Shelter for people unable to find a place in someone’s home.
- They’ve held fundraisers and bake-sales, and invited us in to their children’s schools to talk about our work.
- Our new supporters have shown themselves to be enormously connected on Social Media – helping us share accessible information about the roots of the crisis, using Facebook to draw attention to the terrible choices some people face, signing and promoting petitions which have prevented people from being deported, and sharing myth-busting materials far and wide.
- They’ve put on welcome events and taken part in a festival of ideas where refugees and asylum seekers and citizens of Leeds ate, drank, talked, and celebrated the contribution of refugees to life in Leeds.
- They’ve helped set up the distribution depot at Richmond Hill, which now offers clothing and food to refugees and asylum seekers in Lesvos, Dunkirk and Leeds.
- They’ve been willing to speak to journalists about why they have become involved on the radio, TV, and in the papers.
- They’ve set up Languages for Good a free interpreting and translation service, and the Welcome Boxes Leeds project
- They’ve challenged organisations like mine to coordinate our volunteering opportunities better and make what we do clearer and easier to understand
This is an astonishing amount, in just seven months. And remember that all of this, all of this has been led, not by organisations and services, but by people like you. The kind of people who refuse to stand by whilst bad things happen. Not just in Leeds, but up and down the country.
We have been so busy, and we have sometimes forgotten to take stock of the enormous impact these actions have had and continue to have on the lives of many frightened people, who find themselves a long way from home.
So what’s next?
In September of last year, it was common to see lists of “things you can do to help the Refugee Crisis” – and City of Sanctuary’s was particularly good.
Here are 3 more
- Celebrate your achievements: for every welcome event, for the bake sales and clothing collections; for the letters and the petitions; for the demonstrations outside detention-centres, and the direct debits you’ve set up; for the conversations you’ve had with friends, relatives, colleagues and worshippers; and for the Guardian Appeal which has consolidated the work of 6 fantastic organisations.
- If your offer of help wasn’t taken up, offer it a second time: many of the organisations who struggled to respond to the swell of volunteers six months ago are in much better shape than they were. Your offer may be more welcome than ever before. If you’re interested in hosting an asylum seeker or a refugee, NACCOM’s website has got a lot easier to use, and has links to just about every hosting scheme in the country.
- Keep up the pressure on our political leaders to change the way they are responding to the crisis. They’re beginning to listen, and there have been some useful changes to the Immigration Bill. But there is still a lot to do to preserve people’s access to free healthcare, to obtain the right to work, and to ensure that destitute families are not forced into desperate choices by the removal of Home Office support. Celebrate their achievements, praise them for their willingness to listen, but keep reminding them that there’s still a long way to go.
Thank you for everything you’ve done, and for everything you’ve helped to achieve.
Each one of these tiny acts of solidarity marks you out as a member of that small group of thoughtful, committed people who continue to create a culture of welcome wherever they live and work, and who are the reason why an extremely hostile environment will never take root in a City of Sanctuary.