See: Creating Sanctuary
Alan - South West Wales, 'Swansea City Of Sanctuary'
In what ways have you volunteered?
I first became involved with asylum seekers and refugees in Swansea by going to the Friday evening drop-ins organised by Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group (SBASSG). This is a friendship group run by people from the local Swansea community, including refugees and asylum seekers. For about 15 years now it has run twice-weekly drop-ins which provide a space for asylum seekers and refugees to get together and meet other local people. As time has gone on they have become more organised, and about 80 people come each time to what they generally refer to as “the community”. For the last few years there has always been a hot meal, access to informal English language conversation classes, childcare provision, and occasional outings and parties. Unlike my wife, who has been secretary of SBASSG for many years, I never had a definite role, but would muck in with whatever needed doing (often welcoming people at the door) or bringing a chess-set and take on anyone who wanted to play.
My wife - Marilyn and I have also provided accommodation in our house for destitute asylum seekers. Over the past 8 years or so we have put about 20 different people up in one of our spare rooms for long and short periods. Usually we have not got heavily involved with them, treating them rather as non-paying lodgers with whom we share our kitchen and occasional meals, but several have become friends (one attended our daughter's wedding). Over the same period we have been instrumental in setting up and running the SHARE Tawe volunteer hosting scheme which encourages and organises other local people do the same by offering their spare rooms as well. My main role has been in fund-raising, both writing grant applications for the scheme to have a part-time paid co-ordinator and in other ways such as sponsored walks (Marilyn and I have raised a total of over £7500 by twice walking sections of the Wales Coast Path) and carol singing. These funds are needed so that the scheme can pay for expenses such as bus-fares to allow asylum seekers to stay with people like us who live some way out of central Swansea
My biggest voluntary commitment, however, has been through City of Sanctuary. This is a grassroots movement to promote a culture of welcome throughout British society. Started in Sheffield in 2005, there is now a growing network of almost 100 local groups and the movement is spreading to schools and universities of sanctuary and to towns and rural areas as well as cities. My wife and I were part of the original steering group set up in 2008 that guided Swansea to become the second City of Sanctuary after Sheffield. I was Chair of Trustees for the national City of Sanctuary charity between late 2011 and mid-2016, and remain Co-Chair of Swansea City of Sanctuary as well as playing a role in promoting the idea of Wales as a Nation of Sanctuary which has taken off with four of the five parties represented in the Welsh Assembly in support and a conference in late April 2017 attracting delegates from 16 of Wales' 22 local authority areas.
My local City of Sanctuary involvement has included giving talks alongside asylum seekers, organising exhibitions and events, strategic thinking, fund-raising including negotiating with partners to manage projects with us (Swansea CoS has been an umbrella bringing all kinds of people and organisations together, and we have never wanted to run our own project in competition with others). Being National Chair during a period of successful expansion as well as huge change and often negative media coverage for refugees generally has been more like a half-time unpaid job than simply “volunteering”. As well as running trustee meetings which bring people together from all over UK either face-to-face or by phone or email, I have been involved in yet more strategy, fund-raising and event planning (including Sanctuary in Parliament), managing staff (for much of the time I was Chair we had just one part-time coordinator), coordinating our participation in the Guardian Christmas 2015 Charity Appeal, and more recently recruiting staff including our new Chief Officer. In the end I was very happy to pass on the baton to a wonderful Afghan refugee for Coventry who together with our new Chief Officer is leading the organisation to new heights!
One final way form of voluntary involvement has been through singing groups. My wife and I have been active members of choirs for many years, in Swansea we joined a community choir as well as a more traditional classical choir, so this is something which relates to a long-standing enthusiasm of mine. I have twice set up and run a group to bring together people from as many different nationalities as possible, including asylum seekers and refugees, to share songs from their home countries and sing them together. Each time it has continued for a year or so before stopping when pressures built up including the loss of key members (who moved away or were deported). Now I am reducing my organisational involvement with City of Sanctuary this is something I would dearly love to do again, especially collecting and arranging songs from around the world, particularly if someone else would do the organising!
What was it that brought you to volunteering with refugees?
I moved back to Swansea (my family's home town) in 2001 and was an academic in International Development at Swansea University up to my early retirement at the end of 2005. By this time I was aware that Swansea was a dispersal area for asylum seekers through networks of friends through Quakers and the university. My wife had become involved in the SBASSG drop-ins and we had got to know several asylum seekers and some of their local friends. On my retirement, I wanted to play a part in the support networks for refugees alongside her, but find a different role.
By comparison with the hardships experienced by so many in the world, particularly those forced from their homes by war or persecution, we have led a charmed life, culminating in a comfortable retirement in a beautiful home overlooking the sea, and good health (so far) to enjoy singing, walking and spend time with our loving family and good circle of friends. We often say to each other “What have we done to deserve this?” and strongly feel the need to express our thanks practically by sharing our good fortune, choosing to do so mainly by giving our time freely to the sanctuary movement and refugee welcome work.
We are both Quakers. Our work with refugees fits clearly with the Quaker testimony to equality. We do not regard what we do as 'helping' but as a demonstration of solidarity and a natural fellow-feeling towards those who as other human beings are equally deserving of justice and respect.
What reward do you get from volunteering?
Giving time to the sanctuary movement meets my need for involvement and achieving something worthwhile. It means I am working with like-minded people and can use my analytical skills and knowledge and experience of project planning, fund-raising, evaluation, etc. I also meet and get to know people from all over the world and at times to form friendships with them, which is a joy and a privilege in itself.
What have been your struggles?
Some of the asylum seekers we have got to know through hosting them in our house, or through the singing groups I set up, have been detained or even deported and we have been powerless to prevent it. These have been painful experiences. On a very different level, I have had to cope with differences between members of the groups I have been involved in, for example in my role as National Chair of City of Sanctuary – although in many ways some of the differences between myself and others in the movement have ended up being quite creative!
But perhaps my biggest struggle has come from the open-ended nature of some of my commitments, particularly at national level. At times it has seemed like I was the “back-stop” or “sweeper”, trying to deal with whatever was not part of anyone else's specific brief. And since so much has been new and fast-changing in the refugee crisis and the world of asylum policy, there has been quite a lot to take care of in this way.
However, such struggles are insignificant set beside those which have been overcome by some of the asylum seekers I have been privileged to work alongside.
What would you say to your wider community to encourage others to be welcoming or to work with refugees?
To those who feel the natural impulse to be welcoming towards refugees but don't quite know what do, I would say just be yourself! Most of us are naturally welcoming. Whatever you regard as your local community, whatever you are keen on, whether it's singing, politics, sport, walking, art or just socialising, you are probably very happy when others are interested too and want to join in. Refugees are just people, with different interests of their own, like the rest of us. So find a way to welcome refugees into whatever activities you already do. But be understanding and be prepared to make a little bit of effort. There are probably things that get in the way. Asylum seekers have very little cash and may be unable to find money for bus fares or membership fees so may need lifts or concessions before they can join in.They have other priorities, especially regarding their asylum cases, which lead to unpredictable personal timetables with vital appointments with solicitors or the Home Office coming up at short notice, so that it may be impossible for them to commit to regular times for other activities.They may have little or no English, but welcome opportunities to use and improve their language skills.They may suffer depression or experience practical difficulties fitting in with ways of life and institutions that are foreign to them at first.
If you find that others in your group or organisation are sceptical, another thing you could do is to suggest they invite an asylum seeker or refugee to speak at a group meeting or some other occasion. They could do this through a local City of Sanctuary group or other support organisation which would probably send a staff member or local volunteer to accompany and support a “sanctuary speaker”. Just hearing from and meeting an asylum seeker or refugee directly will probably have a big impact on your friends or colleagues with many more of them wanting to join you in being openly welcoming towards those seeking sanctuary here.
For those that want to do more, there are lots of ways to volunteer more specifically to work with asylum seekers and refugees. In several Welsh cities there are community drop-ins and organisations supporting refugees where you could offer practical help, English language conversation or befriending, besides the possibility of volunteering to help organisationally with fund-raising, committee work, etc. You are likely to find it very rewarding. As with me, it may bring you new friendships and a fresh outlook on the world.
What does volunteering to refugees bring to your community?
I believe it is good for a community to be open and welcoming to all, so that volunteering to support refugees brings out the best in a community - which can be proud to offer sanctuary and to be a “place of safety” for all.
Also, refugees generally want to belong, to contribute, and to ‘give something back’, even while they may be isolated and not know how to get involved without some support. However, they are also often very enterprising and enthusiastic individuals. Hence, given that support, they may bring a very great deal to their new communities.
What difference has your volunteering made?
I have been able to be of direct help to a few asylum seekers, especially through offering accommodation to some who became destitute. And I have helped build up the sanctuary movement locally in Swansea, nationally in Wales, and at UK level through my organisational work with the UK City of Sanctuary charity. Here it has not been a question of ‘helping’ but of working alongside those seeking sanctuary to build a movement together.
More importantly, I like to think that I have shown by my small example that the people of Wales and Swansea in particular are in fact welcoming. The idea put forward in parts of the national media that refugees are a burden or a danger and hence unwelcome is simply not borne out by the evidence. The idea of being ‘proud to be a place of safety’ is one that catches the imagination of many like me. I hope that others will continue to be inspired and to join us in the movement to provide sanctuary, to support and work alongside refugees, and to build inclusive communities.
website: Swansea City Of Sanctuary
website: Asylum Seekers Support Group
website: SHARE Tawe
facebook: Swansea City of Sanctuary
website: Wales Refugee Council
UK wide organisation: City Of Sanctuary