Some thoughts from St Chads Sanctuary
October 21st. is the feast day of Blessed Nicolas Barre. Some of you will know him as the saint who looks after the Sanctuary keys! Many of you ask to know more so here is a brief summary of my hero!
Nicolas was born in France on October 21st. 1621. He was ordained priest in 1642. Soon he became known for his holiness and for his spiritual direction. While the well off sought him out because of his brilliance as a preacher and confessor, Nicolas preferred to be among the ordinary people. While stationed in Amiens and Rouen he became very concerned about those who were illiterate and who had to beg to survive. In 1662, he started training volunteers so that they could teach the children. Soon these ‘little free schools’ became very popular.
In 1666 he suggested to some of the women volunteers that they might like to live in community and to start by having dinner together occasionally! That was the beginning of our Institute! Nicolas insisted that these women should not be cloistered as was the norm for religious at the time but should live and work among the people – especially the most needy – and, when necessary, to reach out and find the poor in their own homes. He would not allow them to accept money from rich patrons who might then impose their own agenda and said that they should work for no reward, depending on the Providence of God for all their needs.
Nicolas Barré’s health, never too robust, meant that he was confined to the infirmary in his Minim community towards the end of his life. He continued to see people who came to visit him and to deal with the concerns of the Institute. With regard to the question of its future, he put all in God’s hands and prepared for death. This came on 31st May 1686.
Here is a link to the Sanctuary Bulletin
Last Wednesday, 8th March, was International Women’s Day.
Over the past year we have seen a huge increase in the number of women using our services. They now account for approximately one third of those coming in search of practical help (along with one third men and one third children) and our classes, once very male dominated, are more and more equally balanced.
Asylum-seeking and refugee women are often extremely vulnerable as they struggle to adapt to an alien culture, but International Women’s Day is not only about recognising and trying to combat suffering and prejudice, it is also about celebrating.
And there is much to celebrate.
These women are determined and ambitious. They are loving and compassionate. They are strong and resilient.
The hands pictured here are those of some of the women who walked through our doors on International Women’s Day: volunteers, those who came for practical provision, and ESOL students.
These are those of all ages and all abilities, those who have different cultures, religions, languages, experiences, fears, hopes and dreams.
These are those from all around the world and from just around the corner.
These are those who have lived in Birmingham all their lives alongside those who are just tentatively beginning to call this city home; those who will stay as well as those who are just passing through.
These are those who we want to celebrate, recalling that each of them is a human being, worthy of dignity; valuable and beloved just as they are.
Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi Death Camps. It is a chance to pause and reflect and remember: to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the holocaust and by subsequent and ongoing genocides.
It is a time to look back, to create a safe space to grieve for lives damaged and lost: but it is also a time to look forward: to a time when we can truly say “never again”. The value of our history is to be found in the lessons we can learn for our future
Birmingham commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with an event at the Town Hall on Sunday 22nd February. Past and present suffering were powerfully evoked amidst a reminder that it is all of us, and each of us, who hold the responsibility to ensure that “never again” becomes a reality.
One speaker, who had been a child refugee welcomed to Britain during the Second World War spoke of visiting the Calais Jungle, connecting it to his own experience. This matters to me, he said, because I too was a refugee. He told the story of how his mother, who should have been able to join him in the UK in 1940, was prevented from doing so by bureaucratic delay … until it was too late: another life lost. He mourned for how little seems to have changed, how little has been learned. Bureaucratic delays still keep people away from our shores. I wonder if anyone is counting how many deaths have their names in piles of paper on a home office desk.
One of our own Sudanese students dared to stand up in front of a crowded banqueting hall to tell his own, more recent, experience of surviving genocide and escaping Darfur. It was a story of destruction and pain and separation and suffering. He demonstrated overwhelming courage to share so articulately the story of things which no-one should ever have to experience. It was a story which was hard to speak but which he realised needed to be heard. It was a story that included the words “It is not just me. Everyone from Sudan, they have terrible stories.” He wants the world to know, because he wants the world to help. How we wish we knew better how we could.
There is much to weep over: in our history, and in our present. But running throughout the event there was also a thread of hope: the indomitable human spirit which, while clearly capable of great cruelty is also capable of great acts of humanity, loyalty and love. It was, as an Auschwitz Survivor who shared their experiences at the event said: “Love and life itself which allowed me to go.”
We all play a part in creating the future: we must decide what we want that future to look like. Genocide never “just happens”: the possibility of it is spawned from a language of exclusion and hatred and fear; it creeps up, fed by policies and practices designed to sow division and distrust; fed by our reluctance to rock the boat and the complacency of our comfortable life.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems of our world: but to do nothing is not a solution. To stand by and watch the suffering of others, or to turn the other way so we don’t have to watch is not a solution. We have to begin somewhere, but most of all we have to begin. Each of us, all of us. In our own small ways, we can choose gestures of trust instead of fear, of welcome instead of exclusion, of love instead of hate.
Here we will begin by saying to those who come to our shores seeking the freedom and safety they so desperately need, “you are welcome here” We will aspire be symbols of that “love and life itself” which allows hope to go on.
The trees are down and tinsel packed away for another year … and the manic rush of the end of term has somewhat subsided: yet many happy memories of special moments shared in the run up to the festive season remain, so we thought you might want to share in them too!
Christmas, as much if not more than any other season, is the time when the gospel realities of our work seem at the forefront of our thinking. We remain inspired by the memory of a Middle-Eastern family in precarious circumstances who journeyed far from home and struggled to find a welcome. We are inspired by God’s choice to be found among the poor and the outcast and his call for us to place ourselves there too.
Just over a week before Christmas, the Grimshaw Room at St Chad’s Cathedral hosted us for our Christmas party for our students. Highlights included having a lot of fun carol singing (with our grateful thanks to the talented musicians who made it work so well!), some silly games (because no-one is too old to play pass the parcel, are they?) but above all a chance to relax, to be among friends and to laugh together. A good time, it is safe to say, was had by all!
The last week of term is always incredibly busy as we distribute gifts to our visitors and try to meet the needs of all those who come to us, especially those with the greatest need, before the break. In the midst of it all though this year, we decided, for the first time, to host a family Christmas party forsome of our guests and their children. I think everyone who helped clear up the mess afterwards would agree that it was well worth it. We well and truly filled our reception space: filled with their presence but also with their joy and laughter. Silly games and Santa featured once again. One of the little ones spent more or less the entire afternoon just dancing away … a lesson for all of us perhaps: that the season of Christmas isn’t just about getting things done, it’s about stepping out of the humdrum of the ordinary and dancing to a different tune.
We were once more overwhelmed by the wonderful generosity of the many schools, parishes, and individuals who brought food and clothing and gifts to share with our visitors. We never cease to marvel at what is made possible by the simple gestures of kindness from friends and strangers.
It would be wrong to leave this post without mentioning the amazing work of all our fabulous volunteers: the regulars, and those who just turned up for the day but were happy to be thrown in at the deep end and muck in. There were, inevitably, minor elements of chaos towards the end of term… but not so much as there would have been without the energy and goodwill of a lot of fabulous people, who did all that was required and more. And who, above all, kept smiling to the very end… the end of term that is, and the end of carol singing in the local pub to round it all off too!
During late October and early November, over 50 of our ESOL and drop-in students had the opportunity to go to Cannon Hill Park to take part in the Green Lungs project, an initiative to welcome Birmingham’s new arrivals to the green spaces of the city.
During the workshops they explored the park, reflecting on its sights and sounds, and of course never missing an opportunity to learn a bit of new vocabulary along the way! It was notable that the students were all struck by this oasis of peace and fresh air in a city they are learning to call ‘home’.
Last Thursday we returned to the MAC for the launch of the exhibition which was created using the students’ words and images. With film footage, pictures and words, and sound installations it represents some of what the students’ experienced during the workshop days.
There is perhaps nothing as “English” as a city park, and yet the Victorians who founded many of them were great explorers and the plants come from all over the world. The students who participated were invited to plant bulbs in Cannon Hill Park, symbolic of their welcome to the city and an invitation to put down roots here and become part of all that the city is.
The launch, as much as the whole project, was a wonderful opportunity for all of those who took part: the students, and those of us lucky enough to accompany them in their discovery of this place.
These brief snippets try to paint a picture of the value of the experience. It was amazing to watch several of our students’ faces light up when they saw their photos or their work on the wall. It would be easy to underestimate how precious that representation of their contribution is for those who can feel undervalued by a society who refuses to let them work, or from which they feel excluded by a lack of linguistic ability.
· It must be so easy for our pre-entry students (absolute beginners) to forget how much they have to contribute, so it was a great pleasure to see one of them not only demonstrating that he was something of an expert when it came to planting, but that he suddenly discovered ways to communicate his knowledge to others. We watched his self-confidence grow before our very eyes.
· As we walked around the park after planting our bulbs, one of the students turned to ask whether it would be possible to come back and plant trees, saying “Because trees last for a very long time and they would be here even long after we have gone.” Those of us who heard were deeply touched by this desire to leave a mark on this place which has made them welcome.
We are very grateful to Ampersands Projects, Cannon Hill Park and the MAC for the fabulous opportunity and warm welcome they offered to us throughout the project.
The exhibition is open in the downstairs gallery at the MAC until 31st January. Do take the time to go and see, watch and listen to our students’ work.
Here is a piece written by Sister Margaret, and was recently featured in ‘The Tablet’
Sister Margaret Walsh, of the Infant Jesus Sisters, who runs St Chad’s, in Birmingham, a sanctuary which helps the constant flow of refugees and asylum seekers that arrive every day, gives thetablet.co.uk an insight into their work
Since our records began, more than 57,000 people have signed in. At the moment about 150 come each week for practical items and a further 150 for English language classes. We have provided over 53,000 items of clothing, more than 10,000 bags of food, and around 3,000 hygiene packs.
Many who come are newly arrived and are still wearing what they wore on their long and hazardous journeys from home. We only see most people once or twice because they are frequently moved elsewhere in the country or may face deportation.
Mohammad, from Syria, joined my religious literacy group last week. In 2012, he barely escaped with his life while living in Damascus and has not had a good night’s sleep since he left because he suffers the most awful flashbacks of what happened to him and his family.
His journey to Britain took him through several countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. He survived two journeys in dangerously overcrowded boats, one of which capsized but, thank God, all passengers, including three young children were saved.
That journey cost him US$1,500 (£1,000) and he was forced on to the boat at gunpoint. Mohammad is a devout Muslim whose best friend in Syria was a Christian. He enjoys sharing his faith and he listens to, respects and appreciates the faiths of others. He tells me that I remind him of his grandmother whom he loved and admired!
“Mohammad has not had a good night’s sleep since he left because
he suffers the most awful flashbacks of what happened to him and his family.”
We have over 70 volunteers and a full programme of activities five days a week. Thanks to the generosity of benefactors and volunteers, we are able to give practical help, especially to those who are destitute and can offer immigration and welfare advice to a growing number.
We also teach 10 levels of English language including a religious literacy course.
It is a great privilege to offer a welcome and some sanctuary to these lovely people. Asylum seekers come from many parts of the world; few speak English. Every day we meet the most gracious people; they are full of hope and courage despite appalling stories of persecution and loss.
However, many are too heartbroken and beaten down to be cheerful. It can be very difficult for us too because often we can do little but suffer with them.
The widely publicised pictures of Aylan washed up on a Turkish shore have touched the hearts of many and there is now a much greater outpouring of goodwill in our country towards asylum seekers.
The outpouring of support for refugees since the death of Aylan has been ‘a miracle’Outpouring of support for refugees since death of Aylan is ‘a miracle’ (PA)
I have worked in this area for 16 years and the change in public attitudes for the good really is a miracle. Before these heartbreaking images appeared, we often battled with negativity and with the many myths surrounding those who come here for protection.
Aylan’s father, who also lost his wife and an older son in the same tragedy, prayed that their deaths would do some good. I believe his prayers have been answered. A baby found among the reeds by the river Nile changed the course of our ancestors’ history (Exodus 2:3); we continue to hope and pray that Aylan’s tragic death will be spoken of and remembered by generations yet to come.
As the time goes on, we are welcoming back those we helped in the early days. They come to say thank you and so often they tell us that we are their only family in the UK. Always they want to give a helping hand. They are full of gratitude. It is very humbling to be part of their journey; we have entertained many angels since we decided to welcome people here.
In the words of Pope Francis: “They are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters; hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war – seeking a better life, seeking happiness.”
St Chad’s Sanctuary is a charity that relies entirely on donations to continue its work. Visit their website at www.stchadssanctuary.com for more information.
Last week, 2 of The Sanctuary team, along with a few of their friends went to visit the camp in Calais: ‘The Jungle’. They took aid and helped out while they were there and this is their story:
While our government was building fences around Calais, we decided to help tackle the real issues. The desperate need of thousands of people, left with almost nothing after fleeing for their lives from their countries, and having already been through so much to reach a place of safety.
We researched the best way to help, and after finding the “Calais – People to People Solidarity-Action from the UK” group on Facebook, we decided it would be possible to drive to Calais and pack our cars as full as possible with things that were needed. We asked around for donations and were overwhelmed with the response. Within 24 hours we had already hit our fundraising target and had so many offers of donations! By the time we had finished collecting and sorting, we had around £500 and a bountiful supply of things to take over.
Once we had arrived with our tightly packed cars, we had arranged to meet Pascal, who ran one of the organisations that focused on practical goods handouts. He quickly made us realise the stark situation: one of the largest organisations helping the camp was run by a man living off his lifesavings, working 7 days a week, much of the time by himself. We dropped the clothing, food and hygiene we had taken and spoke more with Pascal about the situation. He told us of the great need for manpower to help the situation and funding to allow them to buy the items they run short of.
We then met Riaz, volunteering with another organisation in the camp, and he took us to visit the school. A small shack of corrugated metal sheets, with some children playing outside. The timetable was written up with classes throughout the week on a whiteboard, and as we were there many people were arriving, hoping to get a place in a class. We spoke to a few people and, everyone was very happy to see us and welcomed us, but almost all asked the same question. “Why?” Why was our government so against helping refugees? Why were they left like this? Sadly, we had no answer.
From here we went onto one of the camps in the Jungle. Make shift tents, a makeshift tap, piles of rubbish (tided as much as people could) and a dusty, muddy ground greeted us as we entered. More importantly, many people, waving and smiling at us, happy to chat to us and even the offer of a hot drink from a very generous Eritrean man!
While there we helped with an additional food handout after going to buy food with some of our donated money. A bi-weekly drop, done in different parts of the camp each time, so everyone could get something.
On the day, we were lined up next to 3 vans with our cars, faced with a queue as far as the eye could see of people, hoping they would get something to eat. Each was given a small bag with some vegetables, then at each van, they were given a few additional items. Croissants, oil, bread, rice, whatever was available. And then each person moved on for the next in line. After 2 hours in the pouring rain, we were nearing the end of the line which must have been at least 500 people long. Those at the end left with only handfuls of croissants each, but luckily this time, each left with at least something. Many people only had t-shirts and sandals and had waited hours in the rain.
During our time there, it was a real struggle to see how this kind of thing can be happening just 25 miles from our coastline. With fences being put up around, rather than aid being provided. We spoke with many people, just like you or me, who had been through so much already, and simply want somewhere safe to live. It was clear to see that more needed to be done, and we all left quite down. We had gone over to help and it felt as if we had been just a drop in an enormous ocean. However, we all agreed, one drop can lead to a rainstorm. And that each of us would find our way to do more.
Agnes is a regular attender at Sr. Margaret’s BSOL (Bible for Speakers of
Other Languages) class. The class have been studying the Lord’s Prayer,
and were asked to write their own versions of it for homework.
A word to my God.
Why can’t I overcome?
These are the questions I ask myself daily.
Even though times are hard,
In this difficult situation,
I have taken the decision to have confidence in You.
You are the same today and tomorrow,
You are faithful for you have never let me fall.
This is why I have never doubted You
You provide for my needs according to Your generosity.
You are my support, my refuge and my stronghold
Apart from You, I have no one else to call on
Even if everything is hard, I have decided to believe in Your word.
YawheJire, you will provide.
Glory to You for all eternity. Amen
by Agnes Tanoh
Stephanie Neville ran a Poetry workshop and below is one group’s poem. Well done Steph.
I will put in the box
The fresh sea air blowing across the beach
The joyful sounds of splashing and laughter
The taste of salty sea water on the tip of my tongue
I will put in the box
My first innocent idea when I wake up in the morning sunlight
The glorious adventure of a wonderful childhood
The happy memory of the days of my past where there were no cloudy skies
I will put in the box
The journey to discover a world I have never seen before
The sound of new languages when I travel the world
A carnival atmosphere where everyone understands the language of dancing and music
I will put in the box
My first kiss, my first sadness, my first forgiveness, my first goodbye
A rainbow of emotions over which I fly with bird-like wings
A celebration of the memory of the first day of a new life
My box is fashioned from dreams becoming a new reality,
with smiles on the lid and laughter in the corners.
Its hinges are the innocent kisses of children.
I shall surf in my box
On the great high-rolling breakers of the wild Atlantic
Then wash ashore on a yellow beach
The colour of the sun.