By Sam Slatcher, City of Sanctuary North East Regional Coordinator.
The first City of Sanctuary North East Regional Gathering took place in Durham on Saturday 27th October, bringing together fifty volunteers, activists and refugees and sanctuary seekers across the region.
Susan Frenk, chair of Durham City of Sanctuary who hosted the event, gave a warm welcome reminding everyone of how important it is that we are communities who are active in supporting refugees and asylum seekers. In increasingly challenging times, it is all the more important that we nourish and support one another, working together to create spaces where asylum seekers and refugee can belong without fear.
The gathering was a reminder of how important links are across the region, with each group commenting on how crucial it is to know what goes on in other areas. This was noted both as an inspiration to encourage new ideas, but also to be aware of where other groups may require further support. In cases where individuals seeking sanctuary have been relocated form one area to another, having strong links across the network will ensure no one falls through the supportive network City of Sanctuary should sustain.
The gathering began with the following updates from across the region:
Durham City of Sanctuary have been actively supporting Syrian families who have arrived in Co. Durham over the past 2 years. For every new family who arrives, Durham City of Sanctuary offer gift bags that include essential items to help refugees settle into the area. The group include family workers, volunteer interpreters, as well as volunteers who support conversation classes, cultural exchange trips as well as hosting celebration events with lots of food! Projects such as Stories of Sanctuary, a songwriting project, and Digital Voices, a social enterprise that encourages storytelling through digital technology.
Northumberland County of Sanctuary are a dynamic group of volunteers, asylum seekers and refugees who work with over 110 asylum seekers, with 28 who have been granted Leave to Remain. The group consists of people who have arrived in the county from countries including Iran, Gambia, Eritrea, Russia, Sudan and Syria. Their activities include a women’s craft group and a Meet & Eat gathering once a month to taste different food dishes. The group also put on English classes, with access to NHS health support and legal support from The Red Cross.
Tees Valley of Sanctuary bring together people working in Stockton, Middlesbrough, Redcar, Hartlepool and Darlington. The group primarily work with asylum seekers in Stockton and Middlesbrough and have begun to support Syrian families who have been settled to Hartlepool, Redcar and Darlington. Tees Valley of Sanctuary (TVoS) concentrate efforts on welcoming asylum seekers (especially where service provision is limited), champion Schools of Sanctuary (with 6 set up) and have an Arrivals Practice dedicated to refugees and asylum seekers. TVoS also host the multi-agency working groups across Tees Valley.
Sunderland City of Sanctuary support asylum seekers in Sunderland with conversation classes with Friends of Drop In (FODI) and The Red Cross. They are very active in hosting feasts, organising community litter picks, run an annual Sanctuary Walk to North Shields and a Sanctuary Cinema every Friday. The group also campaign and engage proactively in encouraging local politicians to support refugees and asylum seekers, despite increasing resistance by a handful of far-right groups.
The event was also supported by a number of local partners, including:
Katie McSherry from Asylum Matters who gave a presentation on the Lift The Ban campaign. Katie reminded us that forcing asylum seekers to wait to work while they await their Leave to Remain is not only wasteful and unfair, it also harms integration and results in people falling into poverty. The campaign is calling for a reduction in the waiting period from 12 months to 6 months, campaigning for the right to work, with no restriction on the types of jobs available to apply for.
Herbert Dirahu and Susan Mansaray from the Regional Refugee Forum’s Health Working Group not only highlighted the difficulty dealing with trauma arising from circumstances in one’s country of original, as well as one’s journey to the UK, but also the challenges that come with waiting for one’s asylum decision. Poverty, exclusion and inactivity are real experiences, coupled with negative public perception, hate, a culture of disbelief and the anxiety of being distant from home. In their presentation, The Health Working Group called for the importance of early intervention, the need for NHS practitioners to be aware of the complexities of mental health among refuges and asylum seekers, and called for working collaboratively with refugee support organisations and refugees themselves.
Fiona Ranson spoke passionately about her work encouraging schools to become Schools of Sanctuary. Fiona suggested that when children are met where they are, with appreciation for their first language, they are more likely to feel they belong. Her presentation highlighted the importance of learning about the issues that affect children who have fled war, embedding concepts of sanctuary in every aspect of learning and sharing what goes on across the network. Fiona demonstrated how useful an Audit Tool is in promoting reflection, giving clear targets and identifying areas for improvement.
Finally, the gathering concluded with the Stories of Sanctuary project, with a performance by Sam Slatcher and the Sanctuary Seekers Choir. The songs emotionally explore themes of journey, longing, the pain of leaving home and the hope of making new communities and standing strong in the face of adversity. Their songs concluded an inspiring and hopeful regional gathering.
Lift the Ban – by Katie McSherry
Health Working Group – by Herbert Dirahu and Susan Mansaray
Schools of Sanctuary – by Fiona Ranson
Stories of Sanctuary – by Sam Slatcher