Looking back now to when we first got involved in Community Sponsorship, it’s clear that we had a lot of misconceptions about what it would mean for a refugee family to be resettled here in the UK. Like most British people, we based our ideas on what we were seeing in the media.
We thought the family would be coming straight from a camp, living in a tent, and absolutely desperate to reach the UK. Subconsciously, we saw ourselves as providing something that the family would be hugely grateful for when they arrived. And although being thanked was never our main motivation for doing Community Sponsorship, on some level we did expect gratitude.
Coming to the UK was a last resort
Until we actually met the family that we were supporting, I don’t think that we had really, fully appreciated that these were people who had lives before they became refugees. They had lives that, for the most part, they were happy with. They had family, they had friends.
Of course, they were relieved to come to the UK, but this was their last resort: you don’t leave everyone and everything you love lightly. We came to realise that, for the family, the ideal outcome was not being resettled but being able to return home, and we had to adjust our expectations about the role of our Group in line with this.
Life in the UK as a refugee is not a ‘dream come true’
We also hadn’t really appreciated what sort of lifestyle the family had been used to before having to leave their home. Sometimes it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone living in countries outside of the ‘West’ lives in much worse conditions than we do. In reality, the family that we welcomed lived a middle class lifestyle in Iran. They had a house, successful careers and a stable income. They went on holidays. They were educated.
Arriving in the UK, they had to apply for Universal Credit and the mother of the family had to come to terms with how difficult it would be to find a job that would match her qualifications. This new life in the UK wasn’t a ‘dream come true’ scenario for them and, again, we had to adjust our understanding of resettlement and the role we’re playing in the family’s life.
Respect for the agency of the people you are supporting is key
Ultimately, the key to making this adjustment was to appreciate the agency of the family. As we got to know the family better, we learnt just how much strength and resilience it took for them to leave everything behind and move to the UK. Our Community Sponsorship Group wasn’t responsible for bringing the family to the UK. Rather, we helped facilitate this move that they undertook for themselves.
We aren’t transforming their lives — we’re supporting them to live their own lives. They aren’t going to gratefully receive everything we offer them because this is their life and, just like anyone else, they will shape it so that it suits them.
My advice to Community Sponsorship Groups is that you need to be prepared to really listen to the family and work in partnership with them: you’re not offering a helping hand to helpless people. You also need to be prepared to change and grow yourself. Getting involved in Community Sponsorship forced me to learn and develop.
As a Group, it forced us to really examine ourselves, our motivations, and our misconceptions. It challenged us to offer refugees meaningful solidarity as an equal, rather than a helping hand for which they should be grateful. It forced us to change — for the better.