UK welcome for asylum seekers

By Sister Ruth Percival

ruth_percival_and_nemah_england_2007It all started when Sister Pauline Dean and I went to a weekend called ‘Seeking Sanctuary’. The weekend was organised by RESTORE, Birmingham Churches Supporting Refugees, which was held at Ascension College, Selly Oak, Birmingham.

It was here that I first met Nemah, a beautiful young woman who had come to the College that week-end with other asylum seekers and refugees from around Birmingham to meet each other and some of us from what we call the host community.

Nemah and her refugee companions came to share personal situations and fears. They asked questions and listened to an excellent – if not frightening – legal presentation. They also did role plays about refugee situations to be able to touch those things that were too painful to start talking about spontaneously. They played enjoyable games that had all sorts of cultural challenges and fun movements that salved some of the wounds that the role plays had deliberately brought to the surface. We laughed helplessly and used words from languages that before today, some of us had never even heard of!

Later we quietly took a blank map of the world, and against the background of soft music, with flickering candles enhancing the beauty of the vaulted and warmly decorated room, we traced our life’s journey on that map, stopping to acknowledge significant moments or towns or countries.

Abraham and Sarah
We then had a Power-point presentation on the call of Abraham and his own journey of faith. There was a photo of a nomad’s tent made of animal skins pictured against the barren desert, a scene unchanged in many ways from the day that Abraham and Sarah welcomed the strangers. (cf. Gen: 18, 1-14)

Welcomed the strangers…
Extended the ropes of the tent…
Welcomed the strangers…

We were forty-five people of various faiths and religions, of thirty-one languages.We prayed quietly for each other and our world. Some prayed for their own families, begging the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that one day they might get news of their husband or wife or children.The power of silence that came upon us was poignant, was healing and was very challenging.

Nemah and I found ourselves next to each other for the delicious Sunday lunch and there among all these strangers, we met at a soul-level which surprised us both that day. Due to the fear that all asylum seekers know, I am not able to tell you from where Nemah comes or share the horrors of her story in her own country or the traumas she has experienced in the UK. Every month, either I or one of our volunteers from the ‘The Solihull Welcome’ accompany her when she goes to the Home Office in Solihull to sign on. We are there to hold her hand and give her a hug when she comes out after signing. I have not yet become used to how cold she gets from the fear of what could happen to her in there.

Nemah was very much part of the beginnings of ‘The Solihull Welcome’. It all happened when a lady from a neighbouring parish and I were chatting after Mass one morning. We discovered that we had been thinking about the same thing: doing something to make the asylum seekers welcome on the day they were signing on.

We both knew we wanted this to involve Solihull Churches Together. We were grateful that our Parish Priest, Fr. Dominic Kavanagh, agreed to present it at their meeting the following week. It was enthusiastically embraced and we met others who had been working with refugees for a long time.

england_shari_brown_presentation_2007The Queue
At first some of us joined the queue in the rain or in the sunshine, snow or wind, simply talk to people. Soon we found ourselves keeping a place for a mother with small children who would have to travel for two hours on several buses to get to the Office. Sometimes we would be comforting someone. Once, early on, a young African man was astonished to find that we were there because we cared. He said it was the first time that he had heard that anyone cared for him or for them and their plight before. It was humbling. It was shocking.

We decided that when we had a sufficient number of volunteers we would have a drop-in in our Church hall. Many of the asylum seekers and refugees get off one of the buses pulling in and out all day long just yards from our Parish Church of St Augustine of England.They pass the church, which is on a corner, go down a short street and turn into the Immigration or Home Office, otherwise known as The Midlands Enforcement Unit.

Last year, more than one thousand people passed our church but did not return to catch their bus back. They were detained, and some, subsequently deported. Statistics of applicants, those detained, those deported, including families with small children are available but mean very little when one knows just one story behind one statistic. We find it very hard when one of our friends, our ‘regulars’, suddenly doesn’t turn up one week. Have they been granted leave to remain? Have they been detained, deported or have they quietly dropped into a river when no-one was looking or gone under a train? We have little chance of knowing.

We thank God that Nemah is still in the system, encouraging, supporting us and others from her own country. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. This saddens them and often causes serious mental health issues. Some volunteer with various charities. Nemah works in an Oxfam shop because she feels in this way she is doing something to help Africa.

The bird-feeder
I found ‘my’ Iraqi family in a sparsely-fitted but comfortable house with a wild patch of garden at the back. Hassan, the eighteen-month-old little boy would bang on the window shouting tii tii meaning bird. He would bang on the window while the rest of the family would spend their day glued to the Arabic TV channel, watching more and more of their fellow citizens killed and bereaved and more and more of their beautiful country destroyed. I think we are all familiar with the story.

So I thought that if I were to take a bird-feeder it might invite some birds to this dingy industrial area to come from somewhere to make one little boy happy and therefore give pleasure to the whole family. Sara, the beautiful twelve-year-old, filled the feeder while Dad went off looking for a nail and Mum explained to little Hassan what they were doing. Ali, the eighteen-year-old, was at college that day. The feeder was hung up in the treeless and uninviting garden and we all withdrew to join Hassan in waiting for the tii tii. None had come before I left.

Several days later they still had seen no birds at their feeder. I begged St. Francis to send some birds. I wondered had I set more hopes high to be sent dashing with all their others. Their first application to stay had been refused. They were told that they didn’t have to live in Baghdad; they could go to Basra, with Dad on a known list to follow his brothers who had both been shot dead. His son, Ali, had been kidnapped.

Finally we got a different type of feeder and a different type of seed and the tii tii came. The whole family enjoyed watching them. Little Hassan is the only one with no memory of their very beautiful garden in Baghdad where the birds came because the flowers were so beautiful and the seeds and fruits so enticing.

‘The Solihull Welcome’
The bird-feeder is only a little thing, but little, ordinary things are what we are doing.

‘The Solihull Welcome’ is now open two days a week for God has blessed us with over forty volunteers from the various local churches around. They include some of the Jewish faith, who were sent here themselves as children to escape the Nazi camps. We receive about twenty to thirty visitors, men, women and children, at each session. They come from all the main conflict zones in our world; Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Somalia, Congo, Cameroon -  with an increasing number of Christians from Pakistan. They come with stories using words the meaning of which we can barely dare to imagine. We listen. We offer a safe place. We offer refreshments. We offer clothes and toys. We accompany people down to the Office. We talk to others in the queue as they wait to go in. We sometimes go to the Immigration court so that the person will not go alone. We put people in touch with others and with Offices in their local area. We have had several invitations to tell different Church and school groups about our work thereby giving facts and breaking some of the asylum myths.

england_immigration_sandford_houseThrough RESTORE, which is Birmingham Churches Together helping Refugees and Asylum Seekers, under whose umbrella we exist and whose training we do, we are able to signpost families and individuals to many caring people and facilities. We need to remind ourselves often of our country’s commitment to the UN Convention of Human Rights – with particular reference to the Human Rights of those fleeing persecution and danger and requesting refuge in another country.

As missionaries, many of us are only too familiar with the seas of blue plastic sheltering some of the 32,861,500 refugees – that is thirty two million, eight hundred and sixty-one thousand, five hundred refugees*. Dare I say that number out loud?

*UNHCR Oct. 2007 People's names have been changed to protect their identity.