On Saturday, 17th September people from around the Diocese of Westminster joined Bishop Nicholas Hudson and Bishop Paul McAleenan for the Westminster Social Justice and Peace Forum on Zoom.
The theme of the forum was ‘To Accompany Refugees’, and took place on the weekend proceeding World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
The forum was chaired by Bishop Nicholas Hudson who underlined that this was an opportunity to explore what the response in the ecclesial community in Westminster has been.
The session was opened in prayer by Barbara Kentish. Barbara adopted a prayer that she uses at the Justice and Peace Vigils that she organises outside of the Home Office. During the forum there were presentations from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Compassionate Communities, Newman Catholic College and St Bartholemew’s Church in St Albans.
Megan Knowles, Communications and Development Manager for JRS UK, spoke about the experience of accompanying refugees in an increasingly hostile world. She spoke about the primary work of JRS being accompaniment, and specifically the accompaniment of people experiencing destitution as a result of being given no recourse to public funds. This looks like ‘being with, rather than doing for’. She spoke about how people at this point in the asylum system are in a ‘legal-limbo’, isolated with significantly reduced access to healthcare during a prolonged and anxiety inducing time. JRS supports in a variety of ways, including having a hosting scheme, a pantry and befriending.
Pattie Gercke is the Development Worker for Compassionate Communities, which is the social action arm of the Diocese of London. Pattie presented from the ecumenical perspective and how churches in the Diocese of London are engaged in the welcome of people seeking sanctuary. Ecumenism was a strong theme of the forum. Pattie shared that church response looked like practical support such as access to work, ESOL provision, hosting, education, healthcare, digital access, provision of food, clothing as well as legal and rights-based support. The value, however, of non-material forms of support was highlighted; for instance the importance of relationship, sitting, sharing space, listening and providing spaces of welcome. Further, it was highlighted that churches are repositories of social capital and that this social capital can be used to support integration. The importance of enabling a wider audience to hear the stories and theologies of people in the asylum system was discussed.
The forum then heard from Danny Coyle who presented the school experience, specifically the transformation of Newman Catholic College in Brent when they became a school of sanctuary. There had been an immediate positive effect of welcoming and integration sanctuary seeking pupils and their parents in the school. They developed a unique and bespoke curriculum to meet the needs of those coming from overseas from conflict zones. There was a particular focus on language which enables pupils to unlock other parts of the curriculum, which pupils were keen to embrace. The academic needs of pupils are placed alongside their emotional needs, and pupils are entered onto different pathways. The school has a Refugee Coordinator. Support of Caritas Westminster for the school’s annual Syria Summer Camp, where pupils take part in varied and enriching activities. These camps have gone from strength to strength with volunteers from a sanctuary seeking background being involved. The key takeaway was that if correct structures are put in place, refugee students and their families can flourish.
The final presentation came from Teresa Clarke who is a parishioner at St Bartholemew’s Parish in St Albans who is directly involved in refugee accompaniment through the Church’s conversation group. Teresa shared how ecumenical work, as well as responsiveness to the needs of the asylum seekers that they are supporting has transformed the project. The group provides emotional and practical support to asylum seeking men at a local hotel and works with 10% of residents. The value of engagement with local MPs was underlined, with the group having strong connections with Daisy Cooper MP. The group is part of a network with other churches in the area providing support. The group hold forums to hold the hotel to account with regards to need for good food and appropriate clothing for the guests. Alongside this the group held a refugees Information Exchange where asylum seekers shared experiences and information, offering help and support. There is a significant challenge of transport, where the location of Noake hotel is a barrier to asylum seekers making connections in the city. This lead to an initiative whereby spare bikes were donated, and so far, the project has received 55 bikes which are fully serviced by a bike mechanic. Herts County Council are offering Bike Ability training while the conversation group support as they gain confidence in these sessions.
After the presentations, attendees went into breakout rooms with each of the speakers to discuss questions relating to the topics that had been presented. These were:
What are the most effective ways to assist refugee and migrant groups, what are the challenges and what else can we do?
It was an opportunity for discussion before joining back with the main group to share experiences, observations and questions.
- How to balance being with and doing with. Context of the whole person. How to accompany people who have and are experiencing trauma.
- Partner with expert services.
- How to support people, especially women facing domestic violence.
- Ecumenical working and that how could operate
- Joined up working between churches, looking at modeling St Albans, not working elsewhere necessarily.
- Working alongside interfaith groups
- Joined up working
- Campaigning and advocacy more difficult, fundamental systems change – HO not listening.
- Range of needs for refugees and asylum seekers, different circumstances and needs.
- Challenges because of the cost of living. Need of financial assistance, winter, facing difficulties.
- Challenges getting churches to communicate.
- What else can we do – sharing information, what is going on where.
- Need for greater awareness of what is going on for asylum seekers.
- Hard to balance the media portrayal of refugee help as a very hard thing;
- How to keep people compassionate enough to help?
- Keep learning from other people and always try to be flexible;
- The best answer to the question is to share experiences.
- How to stop the work of helping people from being overwhelming?
- Think of how we speak about these matters language wise.
The Forum was summed up by Bishop Paul McAleenan, lead bishop for Migrant Issues, saying ‘Refugees are not statistics, but heart and flesh, human beings who must be helped.’
Westminster Caritas Refugees and Migrants Mailing List
Rosa Lewis, the Caritas Westminster Lead for Refugees and Migrants, convenes a quarterly meeting for everyone in the Diocese of Westminster concerned about refugees and migrants. To be added to her mailing list please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Home Office Prayer Vigils
You are warmly invited to join Barbara Kentish (Westminster Justice & Peace), Br Johannes Maertens (London Catholic Worker) and others to participate at the vigils outside the Home Office or to pray along at home on the third Monday of every month, 12.30-1.30pm.
Next Vigil: Monday 17th October 2022, 12.30-1.30pm
Venue: Home Office, Marsham Street, SW1P 4DF
At the vigils we remember:
- those who have died trying to reach the UK.
- victims of the war in Ukraine.
- workers with asylum seekers in detention centres.
- those supporting homeless migrants.
- those struggling to inject welcome and humanity into our legislation.
Also reported on Independent Catholic News –
Together With Refugees – Fill the Skies with Hope campaign, 23rd September – 9th November 2022. Coalition action across the UK to end the Rwanda Deportations plan.
Bishop John Sherrington’s reflections on this year’s visit to Syria Summer Camp, hosted by Newman Catholic College