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Stories of ‘friendship’ with people seeking sanctuary to celebrate Refugee Week

Today the 20th of June is the World Refugee Day. And here in the UK we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week. Therefore, we at City of Sanctuary we are sharing the following stories of ‘friendship’ with people seeking sanctuary as part of our 20 simple acts to celebrate Refugee Week, whose theme this year is 20 ways of welcome.

From Swansea to Glasgow and Doha!

By Tracy Anstee

Tracy Anstee’s is a Volunteer mentor with Swansea City of Sanctuary. Through this and other roles, Tracy has made friendships with sanctuary seekers. Tracy’s stories of friendships with sanctuary seekers stretches from Swansea to Glasgow and even Doha (!) Tracy is marvellous. She has built a friendship with people across language and cultural barriers. With one culminating in a lovely chance trip to a Welsh Love spoon shop. Tracy writes about how some of the friendship came about and some of the things she has learnt.

The story of Grace and me

I started volunteering as a mentor with Swansea City of Sanctuary (SCOS) in July 2016 and it was from there that I was asked to participate along with asylum seekers at The Down to Earth Project. I met Grace on the very first day. She comes from Mombasa, Kenya, which is somewhere that I’ve visited, so we immediately struck up a conversation about that. We would meet up every Monday at the project and a friendship developed. It was during our conversations that I told her that I loved music and singing, and she kept nagging me to join her at the Sanctuary Sisters singing group for asylum seeking women run by the African Community Centre. Two years later, we are both still involved with the singing group and indeed, we sang at the Refugee Week film event on Monday at Cinema and Co. Just before last Christmas, Grace and I sang carols with a group around the streets of Mumbles, where I live. We were singing to raise money for refugees and asylum seekers. At the beginning of January, I went to visit friends in Doha, Qatar and I had only a few days left when out of the blue Grace sent me a text to ask me how I was. I replied that I was in Doha and was surprised when she texted me back to say that her brother, Jimmy, lived in Doha. Grace asked me if I could phone him or possibly try to see him as she said that she was aware that he and the rest of her family were concerned about her. I said I’d try, but the next day my friend took me to the shopping mall where Jimmy works. I put together an album of photos of Grace and me to show him and we talked and walked around the mall for about an hour. It brought me immense pleasure to meet Jimmy and to reassure him that Grace is doing well. Grace and I still talk about it.

The story of Daad and me

Daad is from Syria and I met her through the Sanctuary Sisters singing group. Her English was limited, but we communicate as best we could. Daad would show me photos and videos of her life back in Syria and tell me what she could about her family. When she got her papers, she left the singing group and I hadn’t seen her for some time. when I bumped into her walking past the shops where I live just before Christmas, I asked her if she’d like to have a coffee with me and she answered ‘yes’. However, I was anxious to collect the gift my father had ordered for my mother for Christmas, a beautiful hand carved spoon, from The Welsh Lovespoon Gallery. Whilst we were in the shop, I told Daad the story of how, for hundreds of years, Welsh men would carve these intricate wooden spoons to give to the women that they loved. Her English had improved greatly, and I believe that she enjoyed the story. She said that she would tell people the story in her English class. It was a unique opportunity for Daad to learn something about our Welsh heritage. The spoon was to be the last one that my father gave to my mother as he died in January.

The story of Parvenah and me

I mentored Parvenah through SCOS. She is originally from Iran. She was learning English whilst she waited to see if she would get her papers to remain. When she did, she left Swansea to join friends in Glasgow. She told me that she was moving to Glasgow and we texted each other a bit to keep in touch. Last summer, I went to Edinburgh for a week for the festival. I told Parvenah that I would take a day out of the festival to go and see her in Glasgow. A friend had organised all the tickets for the festival and I was staying with him, so until I arrived I wasn’t sure of my schedule. I think that maybe Parvenah thought that I wouldn’t get in touch to make the journey over to Glasgow, but I knew that once I had confirmed my plans, I would find time to go and see her. I caught the train to Glasgow and she met me at the station with a beautiful bunch of flowers. We both had tears in our eyes. Tears of joy! We spent a few hours together walking, drinking coffee and chatting. It was wonderful to see her beginning her new life. We have been in touch a little since and I feel sure that if I was to visit Scotland again, then I will make the same effort to catch up with her.

My little Nation of Sanctuary

By Christine Nelms

In the two years since I started helping refugees and people who are seeking asylum I am amazed at how many friends I have made, and it gives me even more pleasure to see them making progress and achieving their ambitions.  To say it is tough for them is an understatement. To succeed takes a huge amount of resolve and resilience. The Home office policies are cruel and disregarding of the individual in favour of targets and anti-immigration policies.

I see my role as doing whatever I can to cheer them up, provide them with clothes and household necessities and encourage them in their endeavors. Of course, it must always be remembered that my friends are not only separated from their families but due to their circumstances, their families may have disowned them, so they are completely alone in the world. For those who are in touch with folks in conflict zones back home there is the added stress of hearing of the hardships and difficulties they face.  I firmly believe that what I do is the least I can do to help these unfortunate people who are displaced through no fault of their own.

Uganda – My beautiful Ugandan friend. As an asylum seeker she learned to play football and was chosen to represent Wales in the 5-Aside street football tournament. She was the fifth child and not wanted by her parents. She had begged her way through life with support from her grandmother. She volunteered with the Red Cross in Uganda and at 16 years of age was tasked with persuading people to use contraception. If she signed up 40 per week she was paid £40. I am sure this is where she learnt her wonderfully engaging manner. Among her many talents are a beautiful singing voice, incredible dancing skills, a wicked sense of humour and an ability to mimic others which can be quite unsettling.

She enrolled on an access to healthcare course in Newport College, but her exams fell just at the time when her case for leave to remain was coming to court. The stress of this robbed her of a distinction although she passed the course with high marks. She is currently working nights at a home for elderly mental health patients and her attitude towards them is so kind and compassionate. It is humbling to hear how she cares for their well-being.

Her ambition is to become a paramedic and she has applied to attend university to study nursing as a first step. Her long-term goal is to return home to work as a medical professional in Uganda.

Pakistan – My wonderful friends from Pakistan have taught me so much about their culture. Their gentle manner and the way they cope with the extreme difficulties caused by our ludicrous immigration policies which leaves me in awe. Dad has been in the UK for over 17 years without being allowed to work. Mum has been called to the immigration tribunal several times and the last time when she was pregnant and suffering from severe anxiety, the Home Office lawyer was unbelievably harsh and cruel to her. Their children are a joy. They are bright, well behaved and full of fun and promise. How could anyone say that we do not want people like this in our society when there is so much we could learn from them.

Sudan – I have heard it said that Sudanese people are the nicest people, and this is certainly true of my Sudanese friend. He arrived 18 months ago speaking no English and is now in full time employment, studying hard and has learned to play a variety of musical instruments. It makes me wonder how much we could all learn if we didn’t waste time watching TV.

His English is improving constantly, and we are able to have in depth discussions on often challenging topics. He is keen to learn more about our culture and while I know he needs to get out and about in the city I have to try to resist my strong desire to protect him from the harsh realities of racism he may encounter.

Albania – my Albanian friends have several different reasons for being here. They are victims of trafficking, fleeing inter-family blood feuds or have been cast out by their family after leaving abusive husbands. It is very hard for them to manage with their children on the £35 per week allowance. When their children are in school or college they want to be the same as their friends. In school they are allowed free school meals but in college as asylum seekers they get nothing. This casts them out and makes them isolated. They suffer so many indignities it makes me very angry. They are omitted from the system because they should not be seeking asylum for so long but now the Home Office are often taking years to deal with asylum claims they remain struggling in limbo.

Syria – My Syrian friends are possibly the most challenging. I love them dearly, but they can be quite demanding. One of the reasons for this is often they have come from rich families with large houses, several cars and impressive lifestyles. They are used to living in large family units where they live close to each other and generally eat together.

Their stories from home are the most traumatic. On visiting one family the first thing they showed me was a video of their house being blown up. As in all the countries I have learned about, in Syria it is not easy to be a woman. For all their wealth and education, women generally have to do as they are told and obey the men of the family. There is a huge danger of marriage breakup when the wife realises that in the West she has choices and freedoms she would never have had at home.

Iran – If you cannot accept the rigid Islamist regime and instead choose the Christian faith then you cannot stay in Iran. You will be arrested, imprisoned, beaten up or tortured. This has been the fate of my friends from Iran. They are however extremely talented musicians, dancers, artists and doctors. The hardships they have suffered are unimaginable, but they have so much to offer.

Congo – Several of my friends had to leave home because they have spoken out against their government but one of my friends wrote and recorded a song of protest. He is a professional musician who, following a performance of his protest song, was told to disappear and not attempt to return home. It was through a lucky contact that he escaped with his life and is now just getting his professional career back on track in the UK. He is an exceptionally talented musician and performer and as his unpaid and unofficial manager I invite you to watch this space and keep an eye out for a performance near you.

So, this is a snapshot of the varied and interesting life I am leading in my 70th year. I am truly thankful for the day I became involved with supporting refugees. It has given my life meaning and purpose.