To witness suffering of the scale and magnitude of the current refugee crisis has challenged many citizens, across the world. For some of us, questions stir within: What should I do, or what can I do to help?
I knew that with the help of organisations like Help Refugees, I could send money or resources to those in need, or help directly by traveling to Calais or Greece. But there is now a new and innovative way by which communities here in the UK can mobilise their resources and effort, to give the most vulnerable refugees a route to safety.
In 2016, the Home Office introduced the Community Sponsorship Scheme (CSS). Inspired by Canada’s Private Sponsors programme, which has resettled over 300,000 refugees since 1979, the CSS enables community groups to play a leading role in resettling refugees.
Under this pioneering scheme, communities organise themselves to take on all the responsibilities of resettling refugees. From housing to safeguarding, from benefits to schools, and always taking into account the bonds of friendship that are essential to a resettled refugee as any new member of a community.
My involvement in community sponsorship started in the autumn of 2017. Having graduated that summer, my search for purpose in the post-university mire was ended when a family friend proposed that I help her with an idea to help refugees in our South London neighbourhood of Herne Hill via the sponsorship scheme.
Courtesy of a heroic fundraising effort by Whoosh, a Herne Hill-based cycling group, we had the funds essential to take us forward. Some key connections were made with Lambeth council and the
community organising charity, Citizens UK, who continue to provide us with crucial support. Now, we needed to get Herne Hill on board.
To achieve this, we held a public meeting to propose the idea to the community and to build a team who could make this ambition a reality. For community sponsorship groups, this is a huge moment. I’m not sure what we feared more: resentment and opposition, or nobody turning up at all.
A turnout of over 60 local residents – including members of Lambeth council and our ever-supportive local MP, Helen Hayes – put our nerves at ease. By the end of our presentation, we had scores of volunteers ready to join us. Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees was born amid a tidal wave of optimism.
In the weeks that followed, we set about turning this energy into progress. We had studied the Home Office’s community sponsorship guide and began shaping a smaller team of around 25 volunteers into sub-committee groups, delegating responsibilities. Housing, Communications, Benefits, Local Partnerships, Language, and Safeguarding groups were established. We appointed a Chair, a Vice Chair, a Treasurer, and a Secretary.
Above all, however, we got to know each other. We were a bunch who were unlikely to otherwise mix – some retired, some in their 20s, all with a range of backgrounds and skill sets. In the months that followed, we would become a team.
For me, sponsorship works on two levels. Primarily, it is way of directly helping individuals, giving refugee families a safe home and a network of friends to welcome them. There is, however, a second and vitally important aspect to community sponsorship. Simply, it is its capacity to change the narrative surrounding refugees in the UK.
Sponsorship creates welcoming environments for refugees, built by communities that have themselves joined together to make such a welcome possible. When neighbourhoods treat refugees as they should – as humans – they build and demonstrate the trust between diverse people that we so often lack. Sponsorship is an engine toward sewing refugees into the fabric of our society, helping to cool fears and insecurities that lead us to turn our backs on people different from ourselves.
When we actively welcome refugees into our communities, we show those who oppose helping refugees – who say they bring unwanted change, who are uncomfortable with sharing their country with different people, who say there are not enough resources – that helping vulnerable people is not only beneficial for them but for us too. The kindness that we show to refugees will likely be reciprocated, and we help create new citizens who can contribute to and enrich our community.
It’s a little-know fact that the Home Office are due to announce a review of their refugee policy in the autumn of 2018, shaping government resettlement policy for years to come. I like to think of community sponsorship is a form of communication with government, an expression of public support for refugees. Now more than ever, we need more groups forming, more expressions of solidarity with refugees.
It is easy to forget this final component of the sponsorship equation: our own community. So much focus is rightly directed towards the resettlement of the refugee family that we had almost not noticed the bonds that were being created in our Herne Hill neighbourhood. Our monthly meetings are warm occasions, punctuated by ripples of laughter as we catch up and share the hard work we’ve been doing. Progress is exciting, teamwork is rewarding.
When I walk through my neighbourhood, a place where I’ve lived since I was a child, I recognise more faces now than ever before. A trip to the shops will often involve a wave and a hello from a HHWR member passing by. This is no small thing for a community in London, a city famous for its aversion to eye contact. In the coming months, among those familiar faces will be those of resettled refugees. I couldn’t be more excited.