There’s a Sunday morning I’ll never forget. I was volunteering near Oxford Street with Greenlight to offer support to people sleeping rough – food, hot drinks, basic medical care and signposting to the nearest services. My friend and I came across a guy in his early twenties, around the same age as us. I offered him food and sat with him on the pavement. We began talking and, slowly, he started to tell me his story. He was British from a South Asian Muslim background and his father had kicked him out of the family home because of his sexuality.
This hit me hard because I’m a proud Muslim guy and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. And while I’ve never been homeless, I’m a refugee from Syria so I know what it feels like when you’re no longer safe in the place you called home. I know what it’s like to have to flee, to not know exactly where you’re going to be from one month to the next. To be moving, moving, moving.
I wanted to cry. But instead I looked him in the eye and told him that he is loved, that he will find another family, and that there are people who will support him. I gave him the details for a couple of charities in London supporting LGBTQ+ rough sleepers and gave him directions so that he could get support straight away.
“Sitting next to that man, I realised we had so much in common but our circumstances were vastly different.”
That Sunday morning near Oxford Street stands out in my mind. Sitting next to that man, I realised we had so much in common but our circumstances were vastly different. He was sleeping on the street while I had a stable job, a home, future plans. Whereas he was all alone, I’ve been supported from the very moment I arrived in the UK. It really emphasised to me the importance – and the power – of community for people who could easily become marginalised.
So how did I come to have a community supporting me from my first day in the UK?
I was sponsored to come to the UK with my family through the Community Sponsorship scheme. This is a scheme enabling communities in the UK to sponsor refugees to be resettled in their local areas. Sponsors commit to sourcing accommodation and supporting refugees with tasks like learning English and looking for jobs throughout their first year in the UK.
“Sponsorship Groups have formed from neighbours, book clubs, sports teams, even a pub quiz team!”
I arrived in London 3 years ago with my parents and my brother. We were met at the airport by our sponsors who took us to the home they’d prepared for us. In the first few days after we arrived, we wanted to see the sights so they took us all over the city. I remember seeing London Bridge and the London Eye for the first time.
Then, as the reality sunk in that this city was our home now, they supported us with all the logistical tasks that we needed to complete to get on our feet. Registering with the GP, opening a bank account, arranging English lessons, applying for benefits. These sound like small things, but when you’ve just moved across the world, they can be overwhelming.
“Community Sponsorship meant that as soon as I arrived I had a support network.”
Anyone can become a Community Sponsor. Sponsorship Groups have formed from neighbours, book clubs, sports teams, even a pub quiz team! The people who supported me formed their Community Sponsorship Group from their congregation at the Hillsong Church in central London.
I know other refugees who’ve come to the UK without sponsors and their experiences have been so much harder. For me, Community Sponsorship meant that as soon as I arrived I had a support network. I had daily contact with English speakers who were ready to help me in any way I needed.
This was really important on a practical level and a social level. On a practical level, it meant my English improved really quickly and I was able to get a job on a trainee scheme. And on a social level, it made it so easy to make friends. 3 years later, my main circle of friends is still centred around the people who sponsored me.
“I’ve seen how having a community around you can transform a life.”
I really believe that Community Sponsorship has changed the course of my life. I have plans to continue studying and become a nurse. The fact that I can consider this a plan rather than just a dream is down to their support.
I want as many other refugees as possible to be able to benefit from Community Sponsorship like I have and so I’ve supported Hillsong churches to sponsor 2 more families. This means that I’ve seen Community Sponsorship from both sides now – I’ve been a sponsored refugee and a sponsor. As a sponsor I can tell you that it is a lot of work. It’s more than just an hour here or there. But if you want to have a real impact on someone’s life, I can’t think of anything more meaningful.
I’ve seen how having a community around you can transform a life, and how hard it can be to get by when you’re all alone. I often think back to that Sunday morning near Oxford Street. Although I was the refugee and he was the Brit, in a funny way, I felt like I was able to welcome him home. And that’s because, in just these 3 short years, I feel such a strong sense of belonging. I truly feel that this city, and this country, is my home.