35 delegates from seven cities and towns of sanctuary groups from the South West and Wales came together yesterday to learn from each other, be nourished, encouraged, inspired – and warmly hosted by Borderlands, Bristol’s Refugee Welcome Centre and Bristol Hospitality Network – under the banner of Bristol City of Sanctuary.
Coming so closely after the shock of violence in Syria and Iraq reaching Western Europe, it felt timely and important to affirm and proclaim our unequivocal message of welcome for refugees from war and persecution.
Refugee delegates reminded us that the sense of being welcomed is essential to well-being, but there is still a long way to go for asylum seekers to feel respected and safe, to be supported to learn English, to be able to use the skills they bring with them, and not live in fear of detention, destitution or deportation. They also made passionate pleas for raising awareness beyond the Syrian crisis alone – to remind people that bullet wounds cause the same pain whichever country’s gun is used against its people.
National staff, Tiffy Allen, Forward Maisokwadzo and Elinor Harris were able brilliantly to set the national context of work being done locally – to enable us all to feel part of a movement that’s growing with unprecedented speed.
The main message of the day was that we can share and build on our own and each other’s strengths – that everyone does things a bit differently according to their own area, that each way is valid and this creativity and energy is a strength of the movement itself. If we are able to organise together we can capture this unique moment in history to secure lasting change for refugees.
Wales is strong in fund-raising, paid staff resource and the arts – poetry, music – and being Welsh! The country is challenged by the distances between towns, villages and cities who are keen to be involved.
Bristol CoS has a loose structure but a strong track record of cooperation between local refugee solidarity and support organisations. It benefits from a well-established ‘welcome’ space, and a training programme to support a pool of confident sanctuary speakers, who speak to a wide range of groups. There is a successful Schools for Sanctuary programme. The challenge is to raise awareness beyond familiar communities of refugee issues, to support Syrian resettlement but not lose sight of needs of asylum seekers. BCoS has no funds.
Exeter is proud of its work towards becoming a dispersal area again, and a new City of Sanctuary. It has a good strategic approach and growing sense of commitment in the city. It is challenged by the turnover of group members and how to keep momentum going at the same time as involving new people.
Swindon has a well-established safe space of welcome, and a strength is to be open to new opportunities and collaboration. There is excellent awareness raising work in schools and with community groups. It is slowly moving towards becoming a town of sanctuary.
Gloucester is steaming ahead with Syrian resettlement and activity is county wide for the first time. Refugee delegates from GARAS spoke of the importance of its work for them, as well as the frustration of not being officially supported to learn the language of the country they are living in.
At the end of the day, delegates agreed to keep telling each other what they are doing, to shout about their successes, to share resources where possible, to invite each other to our events and to continue to support and strengthen the direct voice of refugees and to meet regularly. Swindon and Exeter have both offered to host the next regional meeting in March – so watch this space!
After the conference Simon Charter from the Exeter group had this to say, “Terrific meeting yesterday. Many thanks to you and all the others who organized it; I learned a lot.”
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