Welcoming refugees into our church communities

When we think of the many things refugees have lost - family, friends, homes, community, employment it’s difficult to know exactly how to respond. Ahead of World Refugee Sunday, we spoke to Margaret Roche one of the founding members of SHARe Knowsley, a grassroots organisation it supports and helps asylum seekers and refugees who have been housed in the Knowsley area. Primarily an ecumenical Christian-based organisation, they welcome people of all faiths and none. Run by volunteers, they rely donations be able to carry out their work. SHARe is an acronym for Support and Help for Asylum Seekers and Refugees.

Margaret told us,
“Not only that but we feel the word Share also sums up our philosophy in wanting to share our lives with all the people we meet, clients and volunteers alike. At SHARE Knowsley, one of our guiding principles is to follow the commandment to love our neighbour. We see ourselves primarily as a welcoming and befriending organisation who open our hearts to those who need a little bit of help and support at a very difficult and challenging time of their lives. We simply want to show that there are people in their local community who care.”

“SHARe first started out as a small group of people in St Agnes/ St Aidan Catholic church I belong to in Huyton, wanting to do something about refugee crisis. Formed in September 2015 in response to Pope Francis’ call for every parish and religious community in Europe to host a refugee family.

“Filled with the desire to do something, we decided to help those in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, so we launched an appeal for things they needed. This appeal went into the wider community. My husband and I, along with another couple, took two van loads of food, clothing and toiletries to Calais – an experience I found humbling but also very rewarding. The overwhelming generous response, working alongside volunteers at the charity Care 4 Calais and the experience of meeting with those living in the Jungle camp was for me, faith in action. In the midst of the growing negativity towards asylum seekers and refugees this whole experience certainly filled me with hope and inspiration. I began volunteering with Asylum Link Merseyside in Liverpool which gave me some insight into the problems faced by asylum seekers when they are trying to claim asylum in the U.K.”

After learning that Knowsley Council were to become a dispersal area for asylum seekers, SHARe registered interest to provide support, they were invited by the council to attend a monthly multi-agency forum which was to plan for and discuss the arrival of the groups. There Margaret met an outreach worker from the British Red Cross and Nicola from an organisation called SHAP whose role was to support people from the BME community. Margaret continued,

“The first of the asylum seekers arrived in May 2016. We initially called ourselves SHARe Huyton and started a drop-in in Huyton. We planned to welcome asylum seekers with a hot drink and a snack, provide a place where they could meet other people and hopefully make new friends and where they could receive information and advice about living in Knowsley, answer any queries and signpost them to services that may help.

“We were unsure if anyone would come. We had one asylum seeker from Sudan who managed to find us. He arrived, just as we were about to pack away. We were amazed he had, given it had taken him two bus journeys and two hours to get there – a journey that would be no more than 15 minutes by car.
“It soon became apparent that others were undertaking the same journey, so we relocated the drop-in to be closer to them, using a room at Centre 63, an Anglican Youth Centre. The Youth Centre manager was keen to offer support and was interested in helping with their integration into the local community. She encouraged our clients to take advantage of activities they offered, from weekly bike rides to sewing classes.  I wrote to all the local Christian churches in Huyton to tell them about us and invited them to our next meeting - it was obvious that the project was going to be too big for just one parish and we renamed the organisation SHARe Knowsley as it became evident that we would be supporting people from all over Knowsley. We had a positive response from St. Gabriel's and St Bartholomew's churches.
“We started making home visits where we welcomed new arrivals with a parcel of food and toiletries, toys if there were children and small gifts for the adults. It gave us the opportunity to find out what immediate support was needed and to explain about the drop-in. But above anything we are able to make that all-important connection and show we care.

“I was struck by their isolation - I will always remember one of the first women I visited who was a young single mum from Afghanistan. She was pregnant and clearly depressed and had not spoken to anyone for four weeks. Being illiterate in her own language – she would never have found the drop-in. Thankfully, we were able to give her a lot of support.

“We set up a second drop-in Prescot at the start of 2017 as we discovered there were quite a number housed in the area - the Methodist church in Prescot kindly gave us a home and their parishioners have also become actively involved in our work."

After the need to provide food became evident so did the need to train volunteers. She went on,

“We ran a full day's training to raise awareness of the asylum process and to share policies and good practice, especially with regard to safeguarding and confidentiality. We have about 20 registered volunteers but not all turn up every week. These are all DBS checked. The majority of our volunteers are retired and come from a wide variety of backgrounds including a consultant paediatrician, a consultant geriatrician, teachers, nurses, a retired vicar, a vicar in training, social workers. There are no qualifications required, just a desire to help and of course, being subject to a DBS check. We also have a probationary period.  We need a minimum of about 10 to run the drop in as our numbers of asylum seekers/refugees in attendance now average between 30 and 40 each week. We have monthly volunteer meetings as well as monthly trustee meetings.
“At the drop-in, a hot meal is provided free of charge. We sell fresh fruit, basic foodstuffs, nappies, donated clothing and toiletries as well as household goods for a nominal cost. The money raised goes towards purchasing the food and the transport refunds we give to those who have to pay to reach the drop-in. Those who have had their support stopped and find themselves without any money receive an emergency payment of £10 per person per week as well as a free food parcel. This has proved to be a lifesaver for some. We currently receive regular donations from four different parishes that enables us to continue to give the support we do. We are supported by a case worker and outreach worker from the British Red Cross and we have intermittent support from Refugee Action and Refugee Women Connect. Some case work is also carried out by volunteers. Chatting to our clients means we get to find out what difficulties they are facing and what specific support they may need.
“One of the things we also do is to try and encourage celebrations so that everyone can come together to celebrate the richness of each other's culture and religion. Through the year we celebrate Nowruz (Iranian New Year) , Eid, Christmas and Easter. We also have outings during the summer holidays which are always very well received and enjoyed by everyone. Many have thanked us for these occasions, as they say that for a few hours they are able to forget their troubles and just have some fun.
“Last year we received some funding that we bid for, to provide much needed English lessons. We have three, two-hour lessons a week and again we fund transport costs to enable people to get there. We have discovered that the lessons are really invaluable in improving people's emotional, social and mental wellbeing as well as helping improve their English.”

“I am always heartened and uplifted by our volunteers who work with enthusiasm and a desire to reach out and make a difference to those who are marginalised in our society. Through their compassion, love and warmth, they come together to make people feel welcome and valued and I know we have made a difference to the people we have met. One of my biggest joys was when I finally saw the young depressed mum I mentioned earlier, smile and laugh when we took her to a party where she could just relax and chat with someone from her own country. I also feel extremely privileged and honoured to have met some truly amazing, beautiful and inspiring people who have such harrowing stories to tell and have allowed me to be a part of their journey. They give so much more than they receive and truly enrich our lives.

“I am really proud of the work we do and it gives me hope that our small group, SHARe Knowsley is flourishing and continues to grow, bringing people from different faiths and cultures together who may not otherwise meet. SHARe Knowsley benefits not just the asylum seekers, but all of us who are involved.
“For anyone wishing to set up such a group, my advice would be to go and talk to the experts like Asylum Link who have been doing this sort of work for a number of years. Also to establish contacts with organisations such as the British Red Cross, Refugee Action and Refugee Women Connect. They can give invaluable advice and will do their best to support the work that is being done.”

On World Refugee Sunday, Welcome Churches are launching their new Welcome Network - helping refugees, churches and other organisations easily identify churches in their area who are committed and equipped to welcoming refugees.

If you’re looking for resources such as PowerPoint and video resources to use on 16 or 23 June and join in with other churches across the world marking World Refugee Sunday click here.