On 8 December, around 70 people came together at the Swarthmore Centre in central Leeds for the Yorkshire and Humberside regional gathering of the City of Sanctuary movement. They represented local welcome groups, councils, refugee charities – all with a shared commitment to ensuring that Yorkshire and Humberside are places of welcome for people seeking sanctuary.

There were participants from tiny enclaves like Bentham in the Yorkshire Dales, large cities like Bradford, market towns like Ripon and the founding city of sanctuary – Sheffield, all reflecting different approaches and models to demonstrating support for inclusion and sanctuary seekers. From hosting weekends, sanctuary suppers, council engagement, Poetry Festivals, ESOL, befriending, schools of sanctuary, there was so much inspirational work shared.  One participant kindly shared her perspective on the day, writing that “…the joy for me was hearing the stories from all the groups about their initiatives. It was like unwrapping gifts of joy and kindness… So many stories of welcome, hospitality and voices of hope.”  

The day opened with a welcome from the national City of Sanctuary team, with regional coordinator Sara Trewhitt outlining the day. Sian Summer-Rees the City of Sanctuary, reminded everyone about the City of Sanctuary charter and the importance of ensuring that everyone involved in Sanctuary groups are aware of, support and follow, the charter. She highlighted some of the key principles and values included in the charter.  She also updated on some of the outcomes of the May 2018 CoS AGM in Newcastle, with changes to the Board of Trustees and the creation of the Network Voice which will meet annually and provide consultation to the national CoS team. The first meeting of the Network Voice will take place in Bristol 2019.

Sian also described the recent success of the Sanctuary in Parliament day, sharing some of the feedback from MPs, Peers and participants on how we can as a movement can push for real change in the asylum process and the opportunities available in the anticipated Immigration law. She encouraged groups to join campaigning efforts like “Lift the Ban” and write their MPs in support of sanctuary seekers.

We then heard about highlights from Harrogate, Bradford, Malhamdale, Skipton, Doncaster, and Wakefield.  Harrogate shared the fun of a successful sanctuary break in the Dales, Bradford discussed how engaging partners has garnered across the city, Malhamdale described with infectious enthusiasm how sanctuary breaks have brought people together, Skipton talked of a refugee speaker’s impact, Doncaster talked of the work at the Conversation Club, and Wakefield described its engagement with the local theatre, and produced a a short video here.

There were five workshops held, covering the following topics: Schools of Sanctuary; Working with Councils; Campaigning, Media & Communications; and, Health & Maternity. Mary Blacka and Yvonne Jefferies facilitated a workshop on Schools of Sanctuary; Mary has recently retired from her position as the Bradford Schools of Sanctuary Coordinator and is part of the City of Sanctuary national steering committee. The group shared ideas and experiences and reflected on the challenges faced by groups of volunteers to respond to increasing interest by schools.  

Katherine Maxwell-Rose from iMix led a fascinating workshop which explored how to use social media, and different people react to certain messages and ways of communicating around refugee and asylum issues. She talked about tailoring content, and regularly trialling and re-testing messages across different platforms.

Jenny Travena of the Harrogate District of Sanctuary facilitated a discussion on how to work with local council/authorities. She is a former local Councillor at Harrogate Borough Council and helped drafted a motion of support there. Participants shared their experiences engaging the councils and reflecting on some differences working with councils depending on political make-up, size of authority and level of local diversity. One of key messages was the importance of building grassroots support, especially amongst civil society partners, before asking the council to commit to action – and that each council is very different and must be approached reflecting local realities.

Mary Brandon from Asylum Matters led a discussion on campaigning which explored the key lobbying and campaigning demands to counter the UK governments’ formerly “hostile environment” and improve conditions for asylum seekers and refugees. Rose McCarthy of Leeds CoS and Jeni Vine, CoS Trustee led discussions on Health & Maternity Programming, reviewing updates in mental health programming and the maternity stream. The groups reflected on the importance of engaging with local medical facilities to ensure access and enabling sanctuary seekers to speak about their needs.

Through-out the day, Nawal Careem offered one-to-one website tutorials to groups. This hands-on support was seen to be very useful as many groups are increasingly finding it helpful to share information on a website.  Lunch was provided by a Leeds-based refugee-owned catering and included South American specialties like quinoa soup.

In the afternoon, Nicola David from Ripon CoS shared her work on the emerging Shops of Sanctuary Stream; the stream has been launched in partnership with Oxfam, across Yorkshire. She shared a short video featuring a Syrian refugee who has been volunteering in his local shop and how that has improved his English and confidence. Mary Brandon presented on the Lift the Ban Coalition and took questions from the plenary on how to best engage politicians in the region and beyond.

In the afternoon, there was more sharing from groups, including, Ripon, Barnsley, Bentham, North Pennines, Kirklees & Sheffield. Ripon highlighted work with a local poetry festival. Barnsley described challenges in dealing with local far-right groups, but also of progress made in engaging the council. Bentham’s representative made all of us smile in describing how their community sees themselves as extra “grandparents” to the children who visit on sanctuary breaks. York described the launch of the Welcome to York programme, and how it engaged with York St. John to become a University of Sanctuary. North Pennines is just beginning to work to consider how it can support refugees. Kirklees provided information about upcoming local events.

Finally, and fittingly, Sheffield CoS shared with us the success of opening of the Sanctuary Centre  — as well as the on-going challenge to all of our groups to ensure we engage and bring sanctuary seekers front and centre to all our welcoming efforts.

Throughout the day, there were many wonderful offers from groups to support and engage with each other across the region. Notably, offers included:

  • York CoS offers a “Welcome to York” Day out to refugees and asylum seekers from across the region.
  • Mary Brandon of Asylum Matters is willing to do presentations and workshops on campaigning and the Lift the Ban coalition for groups.
  • Leeds CoS offered the powerful photo exhibit on what sanctuary looks like.

The day closed with remarks from Leed CoS Sanctuary Supper Coordinator, Diana. She shared how she arrived as a sanctuary seeker into the UK, and how volunteering and the support of CoS friends helped through the long wait to receive leave to remain. She is now a business owner, caterer, law student and Leeds CoS volunteer.

A huge thank you from the CoS team to all the attendees, workshop leaders, and speakers who made it such a great event.  If you are based in Yorkshire & Humberside and would like to get involved in your local City of Sanctuary group – or to set one up – look at our website or contact Sara Trewhitt, [email protected].