The St Bartholomew’s group welcomed a Syrian family to their area in July 2019. We talked to leaders Ged and Paul about big moments from the first part of their Community Sponsorship experience – from bringing people together to form a friendly, dynamic group to the long-awaited trip to Manchester Airport to meet the family.
It was hearing from Community Sponsors from Manchester in 2017 that gave Ged and Paul the confidence to become Community Sponsors themselves. They were inspired by the fact that ‘ordinary people’ like them had welcomed a Syrian refugee family into their community. “I remember Paul and I looking at each other and saying, ‘We could do this!’ says Ged.
“I remember Paul and I looking at each other and saying, ‘We could do this!’”
They invited one of the Manchester group members, Sean, to their church in Rainhill, hoping he’d inspire the congregation there too. Sean did just that. Soon, around 25 people had signed up to the new St Bartholomew’s and Friends Community Sponsorship group, with Nugent taking on the important role of Lead Sponsor.
The age range of the group was broad. “We had some ladies in their 80s who said, ‘I’m not sure there’s much we can do physically, but we just want to support you’,” says Paul. “Having them taking an interest and praying for us was so important. It helped give us some credibility.”
Ged and Paul knew that to make the project work, they would need subgroups – different people leading on different aspects of Community Sponsorship. So at the group’s first official meeting, they set out tables with a range of labels: housing, welfare, education, benefits and employment, fundraising and communications.
“Rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes, we asked people to go and sit where they thought they could best contribute,” says Paul. “I have to say that we were genuinely blessed with the kinds of people we had in our group. The dynamism, the energy levels and the initiative people used were incredible.”
The fundraising volunteers ended up raising over double the £9000 target set by the Home Office. “They set off at an amazing pace!” says Ged. “In about half an hour they’d come up with a list of activities and people to organise them. It was phenomenal.”
One of the more novel fundraising ideas involved a volunteer dressing up in what Paul calls ‘a really posh evening frock’ and washing cars in the driveway of the church.
“She made quite a bit of money!” says Paul. “What was tremendous about the fundraising events was that also brought everyone closer together. They really helped us to gel as a group.”
Two volunteers had been attending St Bartholomew’s for years but, because one of them sang in the choir while the other was in the congregation, they had never spoken to each other. They are now firm friends. “Community Sponsorship really did spawn a lot of friendships and close bonds,” says Paul.
“Community Sponsorship really did spawn a lot of friendships and close bonds.”
Ged agrees: “People just loved being together. The parish was crying out for it really. It was the right thing at the right time.”
Keen to share their Community Sponsorship plans with the wider community, Paul and Ged met with a range of local organisations and faith groups. A visit to the Anglican church in Rainhill proved momentous. Towards the end of the meeting, the priest remembered that one of his parishioners had a grandson who happened to be an Arabic interpreter.
“It was incredible!” says Paul. “When I contacted the grandson – Hanni – he was only too happy to get involved. He was already working with refugees so was absolutely best placed to help. Hanni really was a gift to the project.”
The housing volunteers spent a long time looking into the different options for accommodation for the refugee family. Eventually they settled on trying to find a home through a housing association. Staff attended the group’s meetings, asking about the kind of house that was needed and sharing insights into which areas would be most welcoming.
“We were so fortunate, because the housing association team was incredibly supportive,” says Paul. “In the end they found us a beautiful three bed semi-detached house in St Helen’s, which is a short drive from Rainhill.”
Just before the family arrived, the group had a ‘very memorable’ couple of days getting the house ready – cleaning, hanging curtains, tidying up the garden. They made a point of visiting the family’s soon-to-be direct neighbours. “They were beautiful people who said that they’d do everything to support the family when they arrived,” says Paul.
After two busy years of planning and preparation, the big day came. Paul and Hanni were part of the small group that went to meet the family – two parents and their three young children – from the airport.
“Standing there in Arrivals at Manchester Airport waiting for the doors to open is a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” says Paul. “We got there really early just in case they were early. I was getting quite nervous. Eventually the doors opened and the family came through with huge suitcases on their trolley.”
“Standing there in Arrivals at Manchester Airport waiting for the doors to open is a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
There were hugs and introductions before everyone piled into the minibus for the journey back to Liverpool. It was an extraordinarily hot day – and the air conditioning in the minibus wasn’t working. “So, to keep the air flowing, we had to drive down the motorway with all the windows wide open!” says Paul. “I’ll never forget it.”
Find out how you can welcome a refugee family too.