On October 6th, around 50 people came together at First Site in Colchester for the first ever East of England regional gathering of the City of Sanctuary movement. They represented local welcome groups, universities, schools, refugee charities, inter-faith groups and many more – all with a shared commitment to ensuring that villages, towns and cities across the East of England are places of welcome for people seeking sanctuary.

The day opened with an amazing performance from Qusai Al-Jaramani on the Oud who later humbly shared that he used to be in the Syrian National Orchestra before being forced to flee to the UK for sanctuary. Omar Al-Suwat from Saudi Arabia then welcomed everyone to Colchester explaining that he has received an amazing welcome in the town since arriving as an asylum seeker 9 months ago.

Ben Margolis, the City of Sanctuary regional coordinator, reminded everyone about the City of Sanctuary charter and the importance of ensuring that everyone involved in Sanctuary groups are aware of, and follow, the charter. He highlighted some of the key principles and values included in the charter. He then shared examples of some of the fantastic things happening across the national network and how important even the smallest acts of welcome can be.

There were three workshops, run twice each during the day.

Jake Brown led a workshop on Schools of Sanctuary based on his experience setting up and leading the successful Norfolk Schools of Sanctuary programme. He shared some of the highlights and the challenges of the project and how they have gone from having one school involved to more than 60 schools across the county becoming involved in the Norfolk Welcomes programme in 2018. He also talked about some of the plans for the future which look set to see an even greater expansion of the programme and more support for secondary schools.

Emma Harrison from iMix led a fascinating workshop which explored how different people react to certain messages and ways of communicating around refugee and asylum issues. Emma explained a segmentation between ‘Liberals’, ‘Grafters’, ‘Traditionalists’ and ‘Sceptics’ and how to use different messages for each group. This led to some interesting discussions around working with the media and reaching out beyond the usual audiences.

Rosalind Scott from Colchester Borough of Sanctuary ran a great workshop explaining how Colchester had become a Borough of Sanctuary. One of the key messages was the importance of building grassroots support before asking the council to commit to action. Rosalind is a Labour councillor and very aware of the importance of getting the public onside before asking politicians to act. Whilst initially focusing on the town of Colchester, the group realised that they could have a bigger impact at Borough level and identified champions and supporters across the region. As the movement grew the council became involved and was recognised as a Borough of Sanctuary in 2017.

We also heard from Maria Wilby who is the Director of Refugee Action Colchester, an organisation which has done a huge amount to make people feel welcome in Colchester through case work, practical support and outreach to organisations in the town. Refugee Action Colchester have recently put together a cook book which will be on sale shortly with recipes created by people who have sought sanctuary in Colchester. We were privileged to enjoy the amazing cooking and baking of some of the local group for our delicious lunch!

Several local groups shared updates and it was inspiring to hear how much is happening in the region.

Norwich City of Sanctuary has grown quickly and has had a lot of success working with schools, the arts sector, the university, businesses and the council. They will have their annual celebration on February 5th to which everyone is invited.

Rattlesdon and Benefice Refugee Support group is an amazing group of people in a rural part of Suffolk who are aiming to welcome Syrian families to their village using the Community Sponsorship scheme. They are looking for any advice (or funding!) to help them with what is a very challenging process.

Friends Not Foes is a student-led group from 6th Form College (Colchester) who were part of the colleges successful application to be recognised as a College of Sanctuary. Some of the students came to help with the gathering and shared what their plans are for the year including a homework club, fundraising and support for Colchester Refugee Action.

Cambridge City of Sanctuary is an umbrella group for a number of charities and groups in Cambridge involved in a wide range of activities including regular trips to Calais and a growing Schools of Sanctuary network.

Thank you to all the workshop leaders, cooks, musicians and speakers as well as to everyone who came and made it such a great event. A thank you also to our hosts, First Site – a spectacular gallery and arts venue in the centre of Colchester which is actively welcoming those seeking sanctuary to events and offering free space to local refugee charities.

The presentations are available here:

East of England  gathering presentation.pptx

School of Sanctuary workshop to share.pptx

Telling stories of change - city of sanctuary presentation October 2018.pptx

If you are based in the East of England would like to get involved in your local City of Sanctuary group – or to set one up – look at our website or contact Ben Margolis at [email protected]