The 28 February 2017 will forever be etched on my memory. On that day the most wonderful, resilient, inspiring family came into my life. As I stood at the arrivals gate at Gatwick Airport, minutes before they came through, I worried about how things would be. I already knew each of their names and ages and a few details about their background. Two days earlier, I’d taken out the passport-sized photos sent to me by the Home Office, and gazed into their faces wondering how we would get on. Now, as I stood there clutching a welcome balloon and a teddy bear, I knew a year’s worth of planning was building to a crescendo and the real work was about to begin.
Back in 2015, like many in the UK, I felt helpless about what to do for those at the centre of our news bulletins. For months on end the images and stories of ordinary people – men, women, children and babies – fleeing violence and war filled our screens. I sent donations abroad, wrote letters, signed petitions and fired off angry tweets asking our government to do more, but it never felt enough. I wanted to do something more personal and more meaningful. My quest for action led me in the autumn of 2015 to Calais, where on a wet and cold day, I found myself listening to the heart-rending stories of those who had made extraordinary journeys to find sanctuary, only to get stuck in the mud of ‘The Jungle’. As I returned to my London home late that evening, I crawled into my warm, comfortable bed and vowed that the following day I would find a way to do something.
And so it happened. The very next day, through my friends at Citizens UK, I learnt that the Home Office were considering the introduction of a new refugee sponsorship element to the UK Syrian Resettlement Scheme. This would be based on the Canadian Private Sponsorship model that allowed ordinary people from ordinary communities to take responsibility for the resettlement of a family. As a leader of a Salvation Army church in south-west London, I realised that this might be exactly the sort of thing we could do. So began our conversations with the Home Office.
In time, we came to understand the complex nature of the task. We would need to build a team of volunteers from our community with the right mix of skills and experience. We needed people who knew about English language tuition, who knew how to negotiate the benefits system, and others with knowledge of health provision and schools. We needed Arabic speakers and fundraisers, and people who just understood the importance of friendship and hospitality. And crucially we needed a house for a family to live in for two years.
Once we began talking about our intentions, the doors began to open. People came forward from the church with a desire to help. Further afield we discovered an expert in teaching English and it turned out her next door neighbours were Arabic speakers with time on their hands. The donations for furnishing a house began to come in – TVs and sofas, kitchen equipment and beds. Everywhere we turned, we discovered people willing and ready to lend a hand. Then finally, after much searching and wondering if it would ever happen, the property fell into place.
Over a nine-month period we laid out our plans, filled in the application forms, trained our volunteers and forged a relationship with our local authority. A few days before Christmas 2016, we received an email from the Home Office saying our application was successful. Two months later, on 28 February 2017, we found ourselves standing at the arrivals gate in Gatwick ready to greet our family.
That was 16 months ago. At the time, as pioneers of the new community sponsorship scheme, it already felt like a great achievement, but as the family crossed the threshold from the airport gate and into our lives, we realised it was only just the beginning.
We’re often asked what we’ve learned along the community sponsorship journey since the family arrived. We can testify to joys and sorrows, challenges and breakthroughs. I remember the joy of seeing the two girls going to school for the first time in seven years. Their parents told us that they were up at 04.30 in the morning, dressed in their uniforms and waiting patiently for the school day to begin. I recall the moment that the dad was offered his first job, only four months after arriving. He had been itching to work from day one. Then there was the day the mum cooked 12 of our volunteers a slap-up meal as a thank you. Her cooking is now celebrated throughout the neighbourhood and she’s constantly booked for local events. On the other hand, there have been more difficult days, for example when heart-breaking news arrived about family members back home. There have also been frustrations with medical appointments, benefit payments and negotiating bureaucracy. We’ve often sat back and marvelled at the family’s patience.
As a sponsoring team we share willingly how the experience has transformed us. We hadn’t expected it to have such a profound effect, but it has. The family have taught us about what a real welcome looks like. They’ve taught us about the meaning of family and cross-cultural friendship. We’ve been humbled by their trust and their arrival has forged us into a better, more caring and hospitable community. At the beginning we thought it was their lives that would be transformed, but in all honesty, it turned out to be ours.
by Nick Coke
Major, The Salvation Army
Raynes Park Community Church and Refugee Response Co-ordinator, UK and Ireland