Julia Faire reflects on working with refugees after Archbishop Justin Welby visits Coventry
“This country is a better place because you are here,” Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, commented as he spoke to a group of refugees and asylum seekers earlier this week in Coventry. “You are all so precious, so valued.”
He went on to explain how his home at Lambeth Palace was also home to some Syrian refugees. We listened, some, like me, with a lump in our throats as the Archbishop’s strong words of endorsement resonated in our hearts. Then, he turned to others of us present (representatives from different local Christian organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers) and thanked us personally for our endeavours.
‘Fresh start’ football on Saturdays, conversation café in the Belgrade Theatre, St Francis Church’s initiative in providing work experience on site, English classes around the city and a one-to-one befriending scheme are just some of the things that are happening around the city. Churches are certainly on the frontline when it comes to welcoming refugees.
We are learning so many things: befriending, learning to welcome and to say goodbye with the same generosity, to always send people on the way to the next stage in their lives with our love and blessing.
We are learning the art of communicating, sometimes with few words! Family pictures on smartphones, a game of football, a shared meal, a picnic in the park – or joining in Nowruz (the New Year festival) with a bonfire in our gardens.
Most asylum seekers live in a small house with others, usually a terrace; these are usually adequate but un-homely, perhaps with a small garden and often comprised of several residents of mixed nationalities – and sometimes tensions can run high. An invite into our home is an invite into normality, to sit and eat with friends.
But we are learning about receiving too – the generosity of our new-found friends who have so little money in their pockets – but who want to love us and pour on us their gratitude, friendship and food.
Everyone has a story. Sometimes we never hear the story but sometimes it is told: hairy escapes, sometimes with injury, even the death of fellow escapees, torture, the sorrow of leaving aged and sad parents, children, wives, the leaving of careers, homes, actually leaving, perhaps forever, everything behind.
In contrast, the most delightful job you can imagine is going to the airport to collect family members once left behind. We wait at Birmingham Airport, they walk, through customs and up the ramp and into view, the embrace, the tears, the release of pain, the joy. There are no words to describe this experience.
We are also learning about Home Office red tape, the often nightmarish process of asylum. We can help with that by writing letters of recommendation. Sometimes the process leads to an appeal court – actually a most unpleasant experience as they are run very like a criminal court with a prosecution and defence. I wish, I pray, that in our country, we had a kinder way of treating these people.
Last Sunday, at Coventry City ‘Praise & Prayer‘, when churches of all denominations meet twice a year to praise – and pray for the city, Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry, spoke of his faith: God is doing ‘a new thing’ among us (Isaiah 43:19) . “I don’t know what that new thing is,” he said, “but whatever it is, we will be in it together!”
Yes, last but not least and so important, we are learning about togetherness, no longer running our individual projects in isolation. Rather, we want to share, to help each other, to ask for help, to publicise and endorse what each does and signpost to one another’s endeavours. In this, we believe, is the blessing of God.
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honour me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.”