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Bristol Sixth formers come together to become Sanctuary Ambassadors

By Ruth Pickersgill, Bristol City of Sanctuary Schools of Sanctuary Group

As a local Councillor in Bristol’s most diverse ward and my voluntary role either as a trustee of a number of Charities, a member of the Schools of Sanctuary Group among other inclusive initiatives across the city, I’m very much aware of some of the myriad of challenges faced by people seeking sanctuary locally and nationally. I meet some people, young and old including families living in very dire situations, basically being failed by the current asylum system. People being pushed to lead destitute lives while others face deportation. However, it was refreshing to see about 60 young people coming to City Hall on Wednesday 11th December to spend time learning and thinking about refugee and asylum issues. They had come forward to train to be ‘Sanctuary Ambassadors’ – a new role created within our Schools of Sanctuary initiative to help spread the message of welcome and inclusion in their schools and colleges.

Students from St Mary Redcliffe and Temple, Fairfield, City of Bristol and St Brendan’s Colleges, and CLF and North Bristol Post 16 Centres, spent the day hearing from people with personal experience of the asylum system and the hostile environment from Bristol Refugee Rights’ Voice Project, Mohammed Osman and Taïna Jennifer Laguerre Manéus, Sanctuary scholars from University of Bristol talking about challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees to access Higher education and how the Sanctuary Scholarship have helped them. Students also heard from Cameron Beechman, A Volunteer from the Signing Support Group, whose volunteers accompany asylum seekers to go to their Immigration reporting centre which in Bristol is in a Police station about six miles from the city centre and is not easily accessible.

To gain an understanding of the asylum process, the students also took part in discussions,  an interactive exercise lead by Elinor Harris, Advocacy Manager at BRR, and workshops run by members of Student Action on Refugees University of Bristol on their campaigning against detention (These Walls Must Fall)  and the right to work (Lift the Ban) and in others on volunteering and the link between climate change and migration. One of the highlights was hearing from John Stokes who fosters unaccompanied asylum seeker, Samet Mata, who is currently at risk of deportation, and whose campaign to stay includes a petition signed by over 250k people and a video  called ‘I am a Solder’ that has gone viral. Participants were also really pleased to hear the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees’ perspective on migration and how he is working locally to make the City more inclusive, and internationally with other Mayors, to tackle key migration issues eg on Climate displacement.

The event was organised by Bristol City of Sanctuary’s Schools of Sanctuary group, in partnership with Bristol City Council’s Youth Team. The idea of the ambassadors is that they can raise awareness of sanctuary issues in their schools or colleges, and help to make them safe and inclusive for everyone. I am always so impressed with the creativity of young people and they came up with amazing ideas to take back. This included setting up social justice groups, making and selling welcome refugee badges and awareness raising videos, starting campaigns against the injustices of the asylum system, collecting food and money to support destitute asylum seekers, volunteering for different groups, supporting ESOL teaching and much more. Faced with complex issues, they certainly focused on practical solutions and had so much energy and enthusiasm to take the ideas back,  that I am sure we will see lots of changes in the way schools and colleges welcome refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants and their families in the future. We hope they will also be able to extend their awareness raising to cover their local communities, and to primary schools as we are planning another Schools conference in the summer with students leading the way. Watch the space.

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