Sister Margaret Walsh IJS, who runs a drop in centre in Birmingham for newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, St Chad’s Sanctuary, says she has observed that the environment they arrive into “is much more hostile now” compared to when the project began eight years ago. Describing it as “very upsetting” Sr Margaret says that the hopes of those who arrive in the UK tend to be bitterly dashed: “These people have struggled for months or even years to get here. When you first meet them, they’re so relieved and excited, but gradually they get worn down by the system. There seems to be a deliberate policy to make the process of applying for asylum so unattractive in order to put people off. They come thinking it’s the promised land and end up so crushed and defeated. That’s the hard thing for us – holding the dream with them.”
Sister Margaret recalls how St Chad’s Sanctuary came into being: “I got a very strong feeling that there needed to be a place in Birmingham offering hospitality to asylum seekers, especially those who no longer had recourse to public funds; they came for help to the Refugee Council which, at that time, was located very close to St. Chad’s Cathedral. When they got that dreaded letter from the Home Office giving them a negative decision, they went into the city in the early morning, usually on foot and lined up outside the building ’til the doors opened at 9.30. They stood there no matter what the weather; if they took shelter under a nearby bridge they lost their place in the queue. They were finally given an appointment for later on in the day. In the meantime, most had nowhere to go but continued to wait along the street, often with young children. The Salvation Army gave us the use of a place which is located behind the Cathedral and we named it St. Chad’s Sanctuary. Since then, this building has seen some action! At least 120 nationalities have been welcomed – most speaking different languages and few speaking English.”
Queues form every day outside the Sanctuary. The people often arrive initially into an immigration hostel in the city – with nothing. They are then directed to St Chad’s and they cross the city on foot in need of help. Says Sr Margaret: “Many are asylum seekers who have recently arrived from situations of great violence and persecution. The majority are from Sudan, Iran and Eritrea. Some are still wearing the clothes they wore during their long and often dangerous journey to Britain. They really are the picture of misery, often made worse by our seasonal weather when they walk from the immigration hostel to the Sanctuary, sometimes carrying young children, a journey of 45 minutes – when they know the way!”
St. Chad’s Sanctuary relies on donations, both financial and practical, from the local community – individuals, parishes and schools as well as the efforts of more than 100 volunteers, who Sr Margaret pays tribute to: “Since we began recording, we have given out nearly 12,000 pairs of jeans, over 10,202 pairs of shoes and about 34,000 tins of fish and 19,550 kgs of rice, 5,590 bottles of shampoo and 6,270 toothbrushes! The hard work of shifting, lifting, sorting, distributing clothes and registering refugees is done by volunteers. At the moment about 150 people visit each week for practical items and a further 170 for English Language classes a few times a week. Most do not speak English and are eager to learn in order to make their way in Britain and as a step towards finding work when they are allowed to do so. More than we can accommodate arrive each day, so they have to wait outside until we have space – we pass out stools they can sit on and large umbrellas when it rains! It is particularly difficult and challenging when several mothers arrive with pushchairs and young children. Most people who come to us are either completely destitute or are surviving on about £5 a day – a return bus fare would cost £4.40. Many walk several miles to get to us. They are used to walking but it is particularly difficult when it is raining or cold and especially when they haven’t got suitable clothing or footwear. They arrive at our door dripping wet and shivering. Needless to say, they often have coughs and colds. We try to give bus passes to those who have to walk farthest and we also have a bicycle project.”
The top floor of the building is given over entirely to donated racks of clothes where people can go and select items. Sr Margaret adds: “The Latin for destitute translates as ‘abandoned’ and this is much closer to their reality. In fact, I believe that they are the most ignored and nameless people in our society. We continue to be amazed by their resilience in the face of so much hopelessness since they have very little hope of anything better anytime soon. Life and its opportunities are just passing them by. Yet we are constantly humbled by their graciousness and their strong faith and trust in a loving God. ‘Inshallah’ is a word we have come to know very well at St. Chad’s Sanctuary.”
The practical difficulty of teaching English from scratch is hard. “It can be very challenging work because in the same group we may well have students who have never been to school and others who have university degrees and a lot of professional experience. They are always very kind and helpful towards one another and that makes our task much easier.”
Many who arrive are professionally qualified in their own countries: “Just this morning I was helping a pilot who turned up,” said Sr Margaret. “We frequently have doctors, dentists and pharmacists.” Another community project Sr Margaret established in the Midlands, Brushstrokes, has a programme to help suitably qualified overseas healthcare professionals find work in the UK and Sr Margaret frequently refers people who turn up at her door to Brushstrokes, which has now been going nearly twenty years and supports asylum seekers, refugees and newcomers from over 65 countries.
At St Chad’s Sanctuary, Sr Margaret, now in her seventies, is still the full time, voluntary manager. She is very glad of the support of other religious, with six different Congregations currently involved : “They are brilliant volunteers, completely committed. I love to see religious turn up, with their reliability and commitment.” A new aspect of the Sanctuary’s work, which began a couple of months ago, is helping to educate the children of those who arrive. Many struggle to find places in city schools or their families are stuck in temporary accommodation making it difficult to secure a place.
The Sanctuary winds down slightly in August, to give volunteers time off. But when asked if she would also get a break, Sr Margaret is hesitant: “I’m not too sure at the moment. Things are still busy. The building next door is being converted into luxury flats and there will be a lot going on around here in the coming weeks.” She is not holding out hope of being able to retire anytime soon.
The irony of luxury flats going up next to the place where the most destitute in the city flock, leaves Sr Margaret unashamed to say what she needs: “There is always space in our bank account. We are struggling to get core funding, to cover our basic running costs and we are facing refusal after refusal. The bills need to be paid and we can’t get in the big money that we really need.”
“We sometimes only see people once or twice because they are frequently moved to elsewhere in the country or may have been deported: the hostile environment!” Reflecting on the encounters she has had over the years at the Sanctuary: “They are the most heart-broken people I have ever met. Not only are they grieving for their families and homelands but they are totally bewildered in a country and a culture so different from their own. Not understanding what they are saying may seem an insurmountable obstacle but communicating with the heart is the same in every language. More than anything, they need to be met with compassion and with a deep respect for their dignity as human beings….. As time goes on, we are welcoming back those we helped in the early days and many are now volunteers at the Sanctuary. They often tell us that we are their only family in the UK. When I started this work they used to call me Mother; now it is Grandma! Always they want to give a helping hand. They are full of gratitude. It is very humbling to be part of their journey.”
For more details, visit: http://www.stchadssanctuary.com/
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Matt 25; 35