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“It’s such an enriching experience.”

Originally from Omagh in Northern Ireland, Damien lives in Cardiff and works in education. He joined the Croeso Roath Cathays Community Sponsorship group in 2016 and welcomed a Syrian family to Cardiff in 2019. Here, Damien chats to us about faith, fundraising and football.

Thanks for talking to us today Damien. Your faith inspired you to become a Community Sponsor, didn’t it?   

Absolutely. I'm a Catholic, which informs most decisions in my life really. It's led me to view other people as being my brothers and sisters, my close family. After Pope Francis welcomed a Syrian family to the Vatican and asked all Catholics to do the same, Father Tony at St Peter’s set up Croeso Roath Cathays Community Sponsorship group and invited me to get involved.  

The new group at St Peter’s teamed up with people from a nearby mosque, Dar Ul-Isra. Had you worked together before?  

This was the first time we’d worked together, and it was all surprisingly easy once we’d met a few times. I really enjoyed going to the mosque and welcoming our Muslim friends to St Peter’s church. We took it in turns to begin our meetings with spiritual reflections and stories from Christianity and Islam, which helped us gain understanding of each other’s faiths. In the end, it was just one God that we were all serving together - the similarities between us completely overtook any differences. It was lovely. 

You had a great response from the community when it came to fundraising. How did locals show their support?  

When we went round the businesses around City Road and explained what we were doing, people were only too willing to help – they were so kind. We were given the name of one chap who had five Indian restaurants and all of them donated food to us! Just before our fundraising events, we’d go to the restaurants and pick up trays of meats and big pots of rice. We’d bring the food back to our venue while it was still warm and then we’d distribute it in takeaway tubs, with people making donations for their meal. Later, when the family arrived, another restaurant donated a cake with ‘Welcome to the family’ in English and Arabic written on top.  

Community Sponsorship is quite a lot to take on when you’re working full time. As a busy teacher, how did you manage to stay on top of everything? 

The pressure Community Sponsorship puts on your time is quite considerable, but we had a great team and the load was spread across everyone. There was a time when I couldn’t make three meetings and the team was brilliant – everyone was very willing to pick stuff up. They were very much driven by their faith.  

After so many months of preparation, how did it feel when you found out about the family you were going to welcome to Cardiff?  

Oh, we were buzzing! When we heard there were parents with four children, we were really excited because we knew the house we’d found would be perfect for them. Before they arrived, the family had received a booklet with our photos and names in it. The first time we met, they recognised me from the booklet. I remember walking into the room and they pointed at me saying, ‘Mr Damien!’  

What were some of the more difficult aspects of Community Sponsorship?  

There were stumbling blocks when it came to registering the family for things like housing benefit, income support and disability allowance. It’s a tricky process for anyone, but for us, there were added complications, like we didn’t necessarily always have the information we needed at the right time. So it was a lengthy process, but it was manageable. You just accept that there’ll be some wrangling over certain aspects of it, and you keep forging forward. In the end, it does work.  

What role did you play specifically in supporting the family?  

I set aside one evening a week to go over to the house and teach the children, taking along stationary items and books kindly donated by schools and parishioners from across Cardiff. The family were so welcoming, always bringing in food and drinks. The younger daughter is in year six now and she’s flying – she’s a really bright kid. When the rest of the family come up with challenging vocabulary, they all go to her for translations.  

Are there any moments from your Community Sponsorship journey that will stay with you?  

In the summer of 2019, not long after the family arrived, Cardiff was hosting the Homeless World Cup. It’s an international tournament and the standard is really quite high – the guys look like professional football players. The oldest boy Mohammad loves football, so we took him and his Dad along to the tournament on several days – and it was amazing! I remember we were in the crowd cheering for Brazil, and the Brazilian fans were coming over and getting photos with Mohammad. He was on top of the world with this international dimension to Cardiff life. It was very special.  

And what’s your connection to Gareth Bale? 

Mohammad has always loved Gareth Bale, who’s from Cardiff. There are murals of him on the streets around the city. He plays for Real Madrid - Mohammad's favourite team. So of course Mohammad wants to meet him. I’ve written lots of letters and tweets: ‘Gareth, if you're ever back in Cardiff visiting mum and dad, can you drop us a line?’  I’d love to make it happen! 

Gareth, please get in touch! And Damien, what would you say to someone who’s thinking about getting involved in Community Sponsorship?  

Community Sponsorship gives you a chance to actively change the lives of a family going through the most unimaginable trauma. If, by talking about our group, I can inspire someone else to get involved – and ultimately help one more family – that would be amazing. It’s such an enriching experience, and I'm very proud to have been part of it.