A sanctuary in Birmingham for people with nothing

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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.”

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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