Welcoming asylum seekers to Lancaster
Lancaster Quaker Meeting decided to take positive action in their community as the refugee crisis began to unfold. Mo Kelly shares the stories of some of the things Lancaster Quakers have been involved with.
In 2015, when the situation for refugees was building up, Lancaster Quakers came to the sense that we couldn't sit back and do nothing while people were suffering in this way. We took part in a survey by 38 Degrees and found that 80% of people who replied felt the same. So, along with others, we campaigned for Lancaster to become a City of Sanctuary for people escaping their homelands.
When people started arriving we had to shift from being a campaigning group to actually doing something. I thought about what I would need if I were an asylum seeker newly arrived in a strange country. I put together individual welcome packs containing new warm clothing, towels and toiletries. In these packs there were also plastic folders for the safekeeping of Home Office / Legal documents.
To assist in finding their way around, we also provided maps of our city, with little red dots indicating where people were living. In the front was a little card with their names saying 'Welcome to Lancaster'. Later on there was an event at the meeting house where the Mayor and 200 local people welcomed the newcomers.
Then we started talking about English classes. There were three nationalities with us at that time and six ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers willing to offer free English classes once a week in a space in the meeting house, provided free by Lancaster Friends. That has run for more than a year and continues: this year English is being delivered to asylum seekers and refugees by a local college. Friends initially offered English classes as an act of faith and within a year it is official and it's funded.
At the basic level it is about welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbour – the basics of Christian teaching.
New people look lost, traumatised and sad. So we make friends. One man from Syria got leave to remain but suffered an injury whilst he was here. He has been significantly supported by this community and was hoping his wife and children could join him in the UK. We wrote to our local MP and to the Prime Minister, and eventually his wife and children arrived. We have one family with leave to remain, and the children are settled in school now. We are now working alongside this family, seeking ways to enable them to become self-sufficient and independent members of the community.
Things have flourished despite our imperfect and inadequate hope. With hindsight, it would appear that the 'ground was fertile' here in Lancaster – and Lancaster Meeting was ready. At the basic level it is about welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbour – the basics of Christian teaching.
Working across the city
The other extraordinary thing how things come together. The leadership has come from groups across the city. Not all of us in Lancaster Quakers go to all the meetings. Some of us uphold the work of others in our hearts. Some people have refugees to stay in their houses. Some of us volunteer our time doing the washing up at our local asylum seeker/refugee drop-in, where food is now willingly prepared and served weekly by friends from countries worldwide.
We are just a group of ordinary people, organised into a City of Sanctuary group. But how things have come together does feel like a miracle. There are lots of people doing things right across the city now, and Quakers are part of something bigger.
Getting to know someone is always about asking and listening. We make welcome gifts but beyond that we can't assume that people are going to need what we they think they need. There is something essential in this about doing that Quaker listening rather than imposing what we think is right.
Ultimately welcoming newcomers who have fled their country, can be like being very intimately involved in the lives of other members of our family. That is how the encounter feels.