Stories

Reflections on preparing to welcome a refugee family

Life changing conversations can happen while you are walking your dog! Here Alice from Forest Hill & Sydenham Welcome Refugees tells us how she first got involved Community Sponsorship and shares her experiences of getting to know her group and preparing to welcome their family.

There are lots of benefits to getting a dog: unconditional adoration, motivation to exercise, even lower blood pressure according to some. I’m a sociable person so one of the things I love about having a dog is chatting to other dog owners when I’m out and about. Somehow it’s deemed more socially acceptable to strike up a conversation with a stranger when you both have a dog. Some of those conversations will be pleasant but forgettable. Some of them could change a life.

I had one of those life-changing conversations one day when I was out walking my dog near to where I live.

I had one of those life-changing conversations one day when I was out walking my dog near to where I live in Forest Hill, South East London. As our dogs happily frolicked about playing together, I got chatting to another dog walker. While we were talking, she mentioned that she was in the process of setting up a Community Sponsorship group to sponsor a refugee family to come and live here in Forest Hill. For some time I’d also been thinking that I’d like to set up a community sponsorship group and I’d even mentioned the idea to a few friends, but I hadn’t got much further than that. We exchanged numbers and stayed in touch, and before long I found myself in her living room with a group of local people all keen to set up a Community Sponsorship group in our area.

In our group we range in age from our 20s to our 60s but we were all united with the same goal.

To be a Community Sponsor, you have to submit an application to the Home Office showing that, as a group, you’ll be able to support the family to access education, English lessons, healthcare, benefits and accommodation so there’s a lot of planning to do. This might sound a little daunting – particularly the requirement to raise around £10k in sponsorship – but there’s been so much energy and enthusiasm with our group right from the start. We are all committed and excited about the opportunity to support a family, and between us we are making great progress. In our group we range in age from our 20s to our 60s but we were all united with the same goal: to offer a refugee family a chance to rebuild their lives, here in Forest Hill. It’s powerful to have that shared aspiration with the rest of the group.

I’ve been impressed by the breadth of experience within our group. We’ve got people with expertise in housing, mental health, education, employment, financial management and local government. Every one of us has valuable experience to share and together we have all the skills and knowledge we need to support a family.

I think Covid-19 has made it clear that refuges need opportunities like community sponsorship more than ever.

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, we had a lot of momentum. To raise awareness and vital funds for the family, we got T-shirts printed and ran the Crystal Palace Park Run together. We also hosted a quiz night at a local pub and raised just over £1k. We’re working on our social media profile and have various other fundraising events planned, such as a comedy night and a talk from a local writer (which we hope to run online). The outbreak of Covid-19 did slow things down but it didn’t stop us from pursuing our goal. If anything, I think Covid-19 has made it clear that refuges need opportunities like Community Sponsorship more than ever.

Sometimes it’s hard to get my head around what it is that we’re doing and the impact that we could have on a family who are currently halfway across the world. Until we’re actually at the airport ready to meet them, I’m not sure it’ll fully sink in. Sometimes when I’m out walking my dog I think about the family that we are yet to meet. I find myself saying to them in my head: “Even though you don’t know it yet, even though I can’t picture your faces, you’re going to be here soon. Right here in Forest Hill. And we’re going to help you and we’ll be there for you all as you begin a new chapter in your lives.”