See: Creating Sanctuary
Sean - Mid Wales, 'Hay, Brecon & Talgarth Sanctuary for Refugees
In what way have you volunteered?
For my current volunteering, I was involved in setting up our local group- Hay, Brecon & Talgarth Sanctuary for Refugees (HBTSR) – in response to the dreadful media images of the dead 3 year old Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, in September 2015. I attended the initial meeting to offer my services as a general dogsbody. In the event I became part of the committee and was initially involved in publicising our group by running a street stall in Hay on Wye on market day and with a few other people, running our Facebook page.
Since then I have done just about everything that needs doing, always with other members of the group, which includes organising fundraising events – concerts, bucket collections, etc, helping out on our away-days (Respite days), (these are events in which we bring up to 80 asylum seekers from Swansea to the Brecon Beacons area, where they are hosted by people from a local town / village, who provide a warm welcome, friendship, food and leisure activities etc for the day ). I was chair of the group for a year, lobbying our elected representatives concerning the fate of refugees, including visiting / lobbying both Westminster and the Welsh Assembly and participating in events organised by our overall umbrella organisation, City of Sanctuary.
What was it that brought you to volunteering with refugees?
I have been a community activist for most of my adult life…in London where I lived for 40 years. One of the projects I was involved with for a number of years as a volunteer was a family centre in Earls Court, whose client group was families in local bed and breakfast hotels, the majority of which were refugees. I got to know many of these families and saw their kids growing up.
A small bit of help and support goes a long way with vulnerable people, including refugees. I realised that facilitating the coming together of disparate people was perhaps the most effective service that can be provided. That way they meet people from their own community or people with whom they share similar problems. It leads to the erosion of isolation and loneliness. If these issues can be sorted at an early stage, they prevent things, socially conditioned problems, like mental illness, getting a foothold and people coming to depend on the already badly stretched and very expensive statutory sector.
This is particularly true of the current state of play with children in Calais. If they are not 'rescued' by us, there is every likelihood they will join street gangs, where they will be very welcomed and likely to set out on a life of crime.
What reward do you get from volunteering?
I enjoy making a contribution to my community. I have always got more from my voluntary / political activities than from my paid work and as such, such activities have contributed far more to my evolution as a human being than my professional life.
What have been your struggles?
Bureaucracy….paid employees of both voluntary and statutory sector. My diplomatic skills are of the Irish school, and so I find it best to allow other members of our group deal with them.
One of the issues which arise from our work is that we are a civic group, unfunded by external organisations, whose relationship with our people is one of friendship and support. Our supporters are entirely unpaid who freely give their time, their money and their skills. It is not a legal or professional relationship. The voluntary and statutory sector is primarily a professional relationship where a line is drawn on 'friendship'. And the very positive aspect of this is that we are not beholden to any funding agency, whether it be government or local authority, so can set our own agenda and be as critical as we wish about such bodies.
What would you say to a wider community to encourage others to be welcoming, or to work with refugees?
Our community here in the Brecon Beacons is most welcoming. But alas, we only welcome refugees for day trips as we don’t have any asylum seekers living amongst us. We have lobbied our County Council but they made the decision that the Syrian refugees they are taking in are going to live in Ystradglynlais and Newtown, two towns which are outside of our area. However, we do include those in Ystradglynlas in our events, bussing them to our area.
Our group is very successful in what it does: our program of away days, and fundraising events draws in new volunteers and supporters. So it is not so much as what we would say to a wider community to encourage others to be more welcoming, but that we provide a platform for local people to make a contribution and in their engagement with refugees to learn firsthand of the plight of refugees and thereafter become members of our group.
All of our away days are a great success: they involve members of a community coming together to feed, organise participatory events, and generally welcome our guests. One such example was last year’s Talgarth Away day. This piggy-backed with the village’s annual sports day and they very kindly welcomed our participation in that event. Talgarth has a population of around 1400 people. There were 50 local people involved in the preparation of food and drink for the group of about 60 refugees coming up from Swansea – 3 shifts of volunteers…breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. The big event of the day was the football match between a team of refugees from Swansea and the local team. Whilst that was going on, there was another football game being played on another part of the pitch. The local rugby club allowed us to use their wonderful clubhouse as a base for all our catering for this event.
There was much intermingling of all ages with refugees at that, and indeed at all our events. This helps breaks down prejudice against refugees, often stirred up by media, especially the Daily Mail and The Sun.
What does volunteering with refugees bring to your community?
Most of this is covered in previous question ; it brings members of small rural communities together to host groups of asylum seekers / refugees and undoubtedly creates new friendships and alliances in the process. I have certainly made many new friends and acquaintances since my own involvement started.
What difference has your volunteering made?
My own contribution has been purely as part of a team. We have a magnificent organisation, wonderfully led by Dr Ailsa Dunn, who is the group secretary and the hub of our group. I am but a spoke in the process. The fact that I am now retired helps as I have plenty of time to be available.
When we set our group up in September 2015, the impetus was the images of the body of drowned young Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi on our screens. I felt that the emotional response to those dreadful images would soon dissipate and the support for our group would die off. Unfortunately, the images of bombing of Syria and of fleeing and dying refugees keep on coming. This, coupled with people from our communities having direct contact with refugees who come to us on away day visits, has led to the constant growth of our group. In the first 3 months, we had around 100 supporters on our database – 18 months on, this has grown to around 350, with new people constantly joining us.
Social Media has greatly helped us in our work. We have a dedicated Webmeister who keeps our website up to date and Jo, she is also our Twitter person. Ailsa keeps the newsletters flowing. A few of us keep our Facebook page up to date.
Our primary partners in our work are a couple of organisations in Swansea who work with refugees – Unity in Diversity and Swansea Bay Asylum Seeker Support Group. They organise Swansea based refugees to visit us. They often require items for their work or their clients. They needed some laptops to do English Language lessons. We put out a request to our supporters on Facebook and within a short period, we delivered 10 laptops to them. Someone wanted a microwave. Or a child’s buggy. Or someone to help with English. There was a request for 3 skateboards. Within a hour someone will come up with the goods, which will be delivered to Swansea shortly afterwards. We also have a store-room, organised by a couple of volunteers, where we collect clothing and household goods and donate them when required.
I am, as I have said, merely a cog in the wheel.
website: Unity in Diversity
website: Wales Refugee Council
UK wide organisation: City Of Sanctuary