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“We were one unit, one spirit, one humanity.”

In 2017, people from different faith groups across Redbridge* were brought together by one goal: they all wanted to help a Syrian family find safety in the UK. They became The Redbridge Community Sponsorship Partnership and, in June 2019, they welcomed a refugee family to their borough. Here, we talk to Qaiser Malik from South Woodford Mosque and Pete Southern from Wanstead Quakers about how the group came together.

*South Woodford Mosque, Wanstead Quakers, Ilford Methodist Church, Balfour Road Mosque, Ilford Salvation Army and St. Thomas of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church

Thanks for chatting to us today Pete and Qaiser! Can you tell us what inspired you both to get involved in Community Sponsorship?

Qaiser: I personally was really affected by Jo Cox's murder. She was supportive of immigrants and when she was killed, I think it sent a really bad signal to the outside world that Britain that is not a welcoming place. I felt we needed to show that this is not the case.

Pete: For me it was a response to some of the feelings of helplessness, of not being able to see a way of assisting refugees other than by donating or lobbying our government ministers. Community Sponsorship was a chance to feel active and involved.

You first met at an open meeting about supporting refugees, which was led by Citizens UK. After that, how did your different faith groups come together?

Pete: There was one particular person – Ruth - who had been very involved in interfaith activities in the borough, and an interfaith Community Sponsorship group was really her vision. To me, it just seemed like a great idea. Not only would it spread the responsibility and the work, it would also help foster good relations across the borough.

Qaiser: Ruth was really instrumental in getting everyone on board – she was the one who kept everybody together. With her push and her energy, we became the first multi-faith group to invite a family to the UK. 

Tell us more about your fundraising. 

Pete: Fundraising was really very straightforward. Being from several different groups meant we had a much broader scope in terms of supporters. Each of the faith groups made an appeal to their own congregations. The Catholic church in particular have an enormous congregation, so we had no difficulty at all in raising the amount needed for Community Sponsorship. 

With so many organisations involved, how did you ensure that everyone worked well together?

Pete: We used Citizens UK’s structure for running our meetings which was very useful, because it helped us bond as a group and stay focused. At the start we’d go round the group and say something about how we were doing, and then we’d check in with each other at the end. We had different people taking on different roles in the meeting, and we’d try to keep to a time frame, which meant we rarely ran over. We also had a policy of rotating the meeting venues so that we could all visit each other.

Why do you think people coming together from different faiths is important?

Qaiser: It is very important, because I may have been living in my little comfort zone as a Muslim, and someone else who is, for example, a Catholic may have been living in his comfort zone, and there was no real interaction as such. But this was an opportunity to show how communities can come together. Our common purpose made us work together for one objective: we were one unit, one spirit, one humanity. We were a microcosm of the overall state of UK society.

The family you support is Muslim, so has it been particularly valuable having Muslim volunteers in the group?

Pete: It has certainly helped, as the father and eldest son go to Qaiser’s mosque and have been able to make links with people there.  

Qaiser: We can give advice to other members of the group about religious practices and timings. For example, during Ramadan, the family will be praying more and fasting. If you try to arrange an English lesson during that time, it may not be convenient. After Ramadan, you have the Eid festival. On Eid day, don't fix a meeting!

Pete: The family has also made strong connections with the Catholic church, as their home is nearby. A number of the Catholic volunteers have children the same age as the Syrian children, which has automatically brought them together. All the volunteers have done an amazing job of supporting the family, especially when it comes to teaching English.

Are there any particularly memorable moments you’ve shared as a group?

Qaiser: For the first anniversary of the family’s arrival, we arranged a dinner at a Syrian restaurant in Bethnal Green. We took over the whole place – there were around 20 of us, adults and children, including many from our group who had helped with teaching and arranging appointments.

Pete: That was a very important event for the group I think. Prior to that, we had mostly just met at meetings or to arrange things for the family. This was an occasion to be together socially. 

Qaiser: The family loved the fact that we had found a Syrian restaurant and that we were eating their food rather than our food! Everyone enjoyed themselves – it was a wonderful evening.

Now that the family has settled in, what’s next for your group?

Pete: We’ve agreed as a group that if the local authority welcomes Afghan refugees, we’ll get involved as much as we can. Community Sponsorship gives refugees a broader insight into life in the UK because they’re not just being supported through organisations – they are meeting real people as well.

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