Report on 2019 City of Sanctuary Annual Conference and AGM
City of Sanctuary groups and partners from all corners of the UK and Ireland came together in Coventry on Thursday 23rd May for the annual City of Sanctuary conference and AGM, where we received a warm welcome from representatives from Coventry City of Sanctuary and Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG).
Lorraine from CARAG chaired the day’s events, and started the day offering everyone a warm welcome and kept the day on track with good humour and excellent time-keeping. Craig Muir, the Chair of the Coventry City of Sanctuary group then introduced us to the city and shared a message from the Rt Reverend Dr Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry, about how it was the vibrant and diverse local community who helped Coventry secure the award of City of Culture 2021.
City of Sanctuary’s Chair, Sabir Zazai, shared his experiences of finding sanctuary in Coventry and how people can come together to create a culture of radical welcome. He also related how upon his return to Coventry for the AGM, he serendipitously ran into his first ESOL teacher in the city, which reminded all of us that small acts of support have long-lasting consequences. Sabir then presented three Sanctuary Champion awards to Lord Alfred Dubs, Margaret Fingerhut and Jeni Vine.
Lord Alf Dubs arrived in the UK on the kindertransport escaping Germany and was recognised for his efforts to support child refugees in his work in the House of Lords. Though unable to be in Coventry with CoS, Lord Dubs sent a video address which was shared with attendees. The accomplished pianist Margaret Fingerhut received a sanctuary award in recognition of her extraordinary fundraising efforts in support of local CoS groups. She has toured across the UK, from Exetor to Lancaster performing her concert “Far from the Home I love” to audiences and donating all the proceeds of ticket sales. Long-serving CoS trustee and secretary Jeni Vine received an award in recognition of her dedication and hard work as she stepped down from the board.
Our Keynote Speaker, Stephen Hale (Chief Executive of Refugee Action) spoke about the current challenges and future opportunities for those working in this field, summarising that we all need to do more to make a change. Steven spoke passionately about the importance of collaboration in creating sustainable change for those seeking sanctuary. He told us that it was important for us to tell our story simply, clearly and consistently. There was much to celebrate, for example immigration detention has reduced and we were closer to winning a time limit and the end of indefinite detention. The Syrian resettlement scheme had been a success and had increased the pressure on the Home Office to do more and to do better. However we need to be clearer and more ambitious in growing the movement and remain united to effect the greatest impact on change. Stephen encouraged the audience to be bolder and braver and that we can further increase our influence.
“We are not here to win the odd battle. We are here to change the system”.
Our next session was a panel of Experts by Experience, chaired by City of Sanctuary Trustee Herbert Dirahu, who challenged City of Sanctuary groups to involve sanctuary seekers in the design, implementation and monitoring of all our work. He then introduced the panel which discussed the topic “What does effective engagement and meaningful participation look like?”. The Experts by Experience included representatives from Surviving to Thriving, Freed Voices, Plymouth City of Sanctuary group and a Sanctuary in Politics course graduate. Each panelist shared their perspectives on increasing sanctuary seeker leadership and participation in the movement.
The Sanctuary in Politics Course graduate talked about the skills and tools he gained from the course which are helping to rejuvenate the City of Sanctuary group in Plymouth. A sanctuary seeker from Plymouth City of Sanctuary group shared his experience of being a doctor in his country of origin and reflected on the skills and knowledge people bring when they come to the UK. He posed a question to everyone about whether society wants asylum seekers to be dependent or self-sufficient, challenging the audience to see people seeking sanctuary as contributors, rather than as burdens.
The representative from Surviving to Thriving spoke about the challenges she faced coming to the UK as a young female and how she benefited from being part of a project to make a film about how asylum seekers are not permitted to work. Her long-term aspiration is to become a pilot, and be a woman in a male dominated industry. She shared that she felt that “the sky is the limit for me too.”
From the Freed Voices representative, attendees learned more about what it means to involve sanctuary seekers like him in a meaningful and practical way. He exhorted all of us listening to: “learn from me, rather than only hear from me, and I will learn from you too.”
Inspired by the panel’s sharing, attendees then broke into small groups to discuss how sanctuary seekers are represented at all levels within the movement and in local groups. All tables were asked to consider two specific questions:
- How can we increase the engagement and participation of people seeking sanctuary at all levels within the network, organisation and movement?
- How can we raise the voice of sanctuary seekers?
Before breaking for lunch, we welcomed Tiffy Allen, author of the new book “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes – The Story of City of Sanctuary” to officially launch the book. A number of conference delegates whose stories are contained within the book were given the opportunity to read short extracts to the audience. Tiffy was then presented with a gift on her retirement from City of Sanctuary in recognition of her significant commitment to building a culture of welcome in the UK and Ireland.
After a networking lunch, people gathered for the AGM element of the day managed by our Chair, Sabir. Andrew, City of Sanctuary’s Treasurer explained to the floor the finances of City of Sanctuary and the Asylum Matters project. He made particular note of the fact that City of Sanctuary and Asylum Matters are almost entirely grant funded and expressed the gratitude of the Trustees to all organisations who have provided financial support. He particularly also referenced Margaret Fingerhut, who as well as completing a concert series across the country to raise money for City of Sanctuary groups, also raised funds to cover the costs involved in coordinating the concert tour.
At the end of the AGM it was announced that our outgoing Chair, Sabir, had agreed to take on the role of Honorary President of City of Sanctuary.
The afternoon’s conference session was focused on roundtable discussions on twelve different topics, with each delegate having the opportunity to attend three sessions. This was a great opportunity for people to find out more about how they could get involved with various aspects of the work. Each table focused on a particular topic, with some looking at particular streams of work such as schools, universities, gardens, the arts, health and maternity, as well as how to use streams and awards to engage and develop the network. Other tables focused on practical matters, such as sharing experiences of running City of Sanctuary groups, engaging Local Authorities and how to empower people to share their stories, whilst others focused on campaigning, including how to win the argument to keep families together (facilitated by British Future) and raising awareness of the Lift The Ban campaign (facilitated by Asylum Matters).
Feedback from the day
“Useful conversations and it was heartening to see what different groups around the UK are doing.”
“Particularly enjoyed the session on table 10 on winning arguments to keep families together. Useful info to use. Need more of this sent out to all groups of CoS.”
“Very encouraging speakers”
“This was the first time for me to attend such a gathering. It has been such an inclusive gathering.”
“Overall – a triumph!”
“Excellent venue – very audible speakers and friendly, helpful staff.”
“I liked the roundtables, nice time to share information.”
“Great to see how much work is going on nationally.”
A summary of conference feedback