Advent Calendar Day 3: Asylum Welcome

awlogoIn church this morning, in lieu of a sermon, there was an interview with John Fenning of Asylum Welcome, about the charity’s work with Syrian refugees in Oxford. Since September 2015, seventeen refugee families have been settled in Oxford (here is a Jan 2017 story about one of them), with the help of the charity and its supporters (among them the University Church). They come with nothing, often via other countries including Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon. John’s job concentrates especially on working with the families in their first few weeks in Britain. He collects from the airport, helps make their accommodation more homely, takes them to GP appointments, tries to make sure their benefits come…reasonably swiftly… and sorts out school places. In the longer term, the charity supports community initiatives which put Oxford’s Syrians in touch with each other – with the growing numbers of Syrians, one especially important project is a Syrian Women’s Group, which meets every week. All of the refugees have experienced trauma; some, of course, have PTSD.

John stressed that although there is (as he diplomatically put it) a range of feelings about/responses to the presence of refugees in the UK, Oxford’s Syrian refugees have generally been made extremely welcome by their immediate neighbours. He also emphasised the benefits to Oxford of having a growing Syrian community. Many refugees are former business owners keen to continue their entrepreneurship in the UK (we already have several successful Syrian-run ventures in East Oxford); they bring amazing food, arts, and craftsmanship; they are incredibly hospitable. Among the new community is a talented poet, Amina Abou Kerech, who won this year’s Betjeman Prize for Poetry.

If you’d like to mark the first Sunday in Advent by donating to Asylum Welcome, you can do so here. The charity provides a huge range of services, including a food bank (see below), weekly lunch club, recycled bicycles, haircuts and work clothes, employment assistance, and specific schemes for young people, detainees, and families.

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Oxford: Refugees Are Welcome Here!

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This afternoon, about 2,000 people gathered by Oxford University’s Sheldonian building for a peaceful demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees, showing that refugees are welcome in Oxford.

The demonstration was chaired by Mark Lynas. A speaker from Oxfam, Dr Hojjat Ramzy of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, Asylum Welcome, Emmaus Oxford and other charities spoke, as well as current and former asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The head of Oxford City Council confirmed that Oxford would be welcoming refugee families, and called on the government to make funds available to expedite the process.

A speaker from UNISON called attention to the need to force the government to build more houses and abandon the racist policies which all parties espoused in the run-up to the last IMG_3294general election, before publicising the national day of action next Saturday. The author Mark Haddon called on Britain to “be more German”, after crowds in Munich applauded refugees arriving at their railway station.

If you want to help the refugees – including those already in the UK, who are not allowed either to work or claim benefits – the consensus among the charities was that there are three preferred things to donate at this stage:

ACCOMMODATION, either as a host to Syrian refugees or as a foster parent to unaccomIMG_3303panied refugee children. A representative from the charity Homes For Good spoke about how his organisation is enabling people to become foster parents to Syrian refugee children who will shortly arrive in this country. For more information, go here. If you could offer a spare bedroom to an adult refugee or a refugee family, Oxford City of Sanctuary wants to hear from you.

MONEY. Donating goods is excellent but, like all the major charities campaigning for financial aid (MSF | Red Cross | Save The Children | Oxfam etc.), Emmaus Oxford is requesting cash donations so they can bulk-buy goods to take to Calais at the end of this month. Asylum Welcome, who run all kinds of schemes in Oxford from English lessons to youth clubs, are also desperately in need of funds.

SKILLS. If you can teach English or translate, both the Oxford Syrian Refugee Helpline and Oxfordshire’s Asylum Welcome need your help. It seems to me that every other Oxford resident has a TEFL certificate mouldering or sparkling away in their CV – stronger English language skills make negotiating life as a refugee in the UK easier and less daunting, helping families integrate and access the resources they need. Could you give a couple of free lessons a week?

Support Syrian refugees: a follow-up

This post is in addition to yesterday’s post about how to help the Syrian refugees at Calais by donating items in Oxford. Here are some more resources and information about ways to help, including a few more regional links:

  • This Amazon wishlist helps you buy items specifically requested by those working with refugee groups. This crowdfunding account raises money for those in ‘The Jungle’, the Calais refugee camp.
  • The big charities are also soliciting donations – try MSF, who are doing migrant search and rescue in the Mediterranean sea, Save The Children, who are campaigning for the children of Syria, or the British Red Cross. You can donate at any of their websites.
  • By the end of September, there will be over 26,000 unaccompanied children in European refugee camps. This petition urges David Cameron to allow 3,000 of them (number suggested by Save The Children) to be fostered in the UK, as Jewish children were following the Kindertransport before World War II.
  • Warwickshire residents (and presumably also Oxford residents) can donate to Emmaus Oxford, who are leading a donation trip to refugees at Calais at the end of September, and they’re seeking the following items: trainers/outdoor shoes, non-perishable food, cooking equiptment, waterproof coats, tents, sleeping bags, torches/solar lights, kindling, underwear, roll-up mats, sanitary and hygiene products, water containers, bicycles. Email sandychamberlain [at] hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk for more information.
  • Glasgow residents can donate clothes and other items here.
  • Folkestone United are collecting items for Calais from the local area, as well as donations.
  • Attend and donate money at a solidarity event showing that refugees are welcome in your city – there’s one this Sunday in Oxford‘s city centre. On 12 September, there will be a London Day of Action for Refugees. Similar organising meetings are also being held in other cities, including Norwich.
  • Keep supporting local outposts of UK charities. I’ve seen complaints and concerns that mass donations to refugee charities will take away from UK charities helping British people. This is a very difficult time of year for Brits on low incomes: the summer holidays have meant an income gap as free school meals became unavailable, and the early cold weather is bringing the “food or fuel” question forward early. However, there are three really important points to make here!
  1. The refugees need specific items like men’s clothes, kitchen equiptment and tarpaulins. If you don’t have these, why not buy them from charity shops and donate them? Double win!
  2. I’ve seen a lot of people asking how to donate things that certain groups like CalAid don’t currently need, like baby wipes, nappies and tampons. This is a really good idea! Don’t put these back in the cupboard, get in touch with your local food bank, women’s refuge or homeless shelter! Oxford Baby Baskets are making up packs for new mums and mums-to-be in Oxford, including refugees.
  3. Lots of Syrian refugees will shortly be British residents (thank God). And they’re going to need our charity shops, food banks, shelters and drop-in centres to be in fighting form, not least because – let’s face it – the government strategy for helping people once they arrive is probably going to be abysmal. Supporting your local charity shop, food bank or shelter is a way to support refugees (and always has been).

If you have other links about drop-off points for donations to help the Syrian refugees, charities taking aid to Syrian refugees, or events along the lines of Refugees Welcome, please post them here – and share this post, if you can!