You will all have seen the heart-breaking image of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach, so you don’t need me to describe the dire conditions faced by refugees around the world. It’s a sign of our common humanity that such images trigger feelings of outrage and it’s our duty as humans to act on this feeling.
The way that I acted was to sponsor a refugee family to come to the UK through the Community Sponsorship scheme. The coronavirus outbreak means that, inevitably, we’re looking inwards now, but our duty to our neighbours beyond the UK will still exist when we emerge from this pandemic. Community Sponsorship gives you a practical way to make a real difference to the lives of a refugee family.
Some of you won’t have heard of Community Sponsorship yet. It’s a government scheme set up in 2016 enabling people in a local area to sponsor a refugee family to come to the UK. A very similar scheme has been running successfully in Canada for more than 40 years and more than 300,000 refugees have now been welcomed this way!
I was moved to set up a Community Sponsorship group where I live in South London after Pope Francis said in 2015 that every Catholic parish should welcome a refugee family. To me this seemed like an eminently do-able way to fulfil the gospel – to put the command to love your neighbour into practice. It also felt like a really powerful way for churches to make a truly vital and transformational difference to the lives of vulnerable people. At a meeting of parishioners from the Catholic parishes across Sutton, I asked who would be interested in joining me to set up a Community Sponsorship Group. Very quickly, 13 people came forward.
Taking on Community Sponsorship is so worthwhile but not always easy. You’ll be talking to the Jobcentre, setting up English classes, looking for school places and carrying out all kinds of other tasks. But with a group of people around you, you’ll share out the tasks so that it’s manageable. Most of the people in our Community Sponsorship Group – myself included – are retired. We found that between us we had a huge range of professional experience, from teaching to social work to the commercial sector. Each of us had something that we could contribute to support a family to build a new life. And, of course, it’s not only professional experience that is useful – anyone who’s ever applied for benefits or opened a bank account has a skill that can be useful! We have had the support of other Christian churches as well. One volunteer organised Arabic TV, and there are good neighbours who befriended the family and baked a cake for them when they arrived.
Although Community Sponsorship can be challenging, it’s made easier because you know exactly why you’ve undertaken this challenge: to support a family in need. It's now more than 2 years since the refugee family that we sponsored arrived in Sutton. I won’t say too much here because we don’t feel like it’s our place as volunteers to talk on behalf of the family we sponsored, but I will say that we feel very happy to have been able to play this part in their lives. We were so lucky with the people who arrived. Of course, we would have supported anyone regardless of whether we got along with them but it certainly helped that they were such a lovely family.
When I found out that I’d received Maundy Money from the Queen, I was astonished. But although it feels slightly funny on a personal level to be recognised in such a grand way, it’s wonderful that Community Sponsorship, which can have such a profound impact on refugees and communities, is being acknowledged.
The ceremony to receive the Maundy Money was called off due to the coronavirus pandemic, and as the virus comes to affect more and more aspects of life in the UK, it’s impossible not to wonder what impact it will have on Community Sponsorship. My hope is that it will be positive. I keep thinking of how many NHS staff from migrant backgrounds have died. They came here and they protected us and, ultimately, they died for us. There couldn’t be a more compelling example of what it means to love your neighbour. Surely their sacrifice will convince more people to open themselves up to welcoming refugees.
Through Community Sponsorship we’ve had the privilege of welcoming a family from halfway across the world into our neighbourhood and supporting them through a pivotal period in their lives. As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, I encourage everyone looking for practical a way to make a difference to consider sponsoring a refugee family.