Offering hospitality makes us more human
I was in the kitchen with Radio 4 in the background as usual. My cup of tea was invaded by the sound of children and families crying and in real distress. Raw distress is sadly not unusual in today’s news, but these families were refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. They had survived the acutely dangerous sea journey and days before had kissed the ground on their arrival to Greece, assuming that in Europe at least they would be safe and welcomed. The Macedonian border had been closed. The police were teargassing the crowd of hungry, scared and tired refugees. Where was the safety and where was the welcome? I think it was that moment that I decided that there was a choice to make. To feel powerless and retreat into the world’s despair or to work together with fellow citizens, brothers and sisters, to make sure that there was a place of safety and welcome in Europe for these people, and others like them. So I decided to get in touch with Citizen’s UK, a civic organisation of people of faith and none, which has been instrumental in building a political and civic alliance of the like-minded, including a highly influential group of Anglican bishops, to lobby the government to resettle vulnerable Syrian refugees here in the UK.
A few months later, the Enfield Refugee Welcome Group had formally come together - a group of over 35 committed individuals representing over 7 Enfield churches and a number of local civic or humanitarian groups. We have entered into very positive dialogue with Enfield Council, where there is political will to resettle vulnerable Syrian families in the borough, but where there is considerable barriers to do so - the primary of which is housing. We have entered into these discussions in the spirit of partnership. True community welcome and resettlement can only come from the heart of the community itself - we can’t look to statutory bodies to do this alone. Without a structured and organised community response, it’s clear that Enfield Council (and the vast majority of other London boroughs) will not bid to take refugees under the Syrian vulnerable people’s programme (the 20,000 that the government has committed to resettle). We are clear that no-one can support a situation where councils are forced to choose between housing one of their own residents and a vulnerable Syrian. Solutions must be found in the form of the recruitment of private landlords not currently in the social housing sector, ‘refugee welcome’ schools, equipped with the right pastoral support and psychotherapeutic skills to deal with traumatised children, specialist mental health services and broader community welcome responses.
Three brief points to close.
Firstly, let’s just have a quick look at numbers. Over 4.5 million Syrians are now on the move, with 2.5 million in Turkey alone. In the 70’s, the London borough of Brent alone offered a home to 10,000 Ugandan Asian refugees who were being massacred under Idi Amin. This year and next, if every borough resettled just 5 Syrian families, we would exceed the existing 20,000 commitment that the government has made.
Secondly, our group is drawn from the whole spectrum of the community. There are people of faith and none. There are skilled professionals - teachers, lawyers. There are mothers with young children. There are people who have come forward to say that although they don’t have obvious practical skills to contribute but that they will pray. We have at least 2 “prayer warriors” within the group and I feel this has made a tangible difference already. We will in the coming weeks, be reaching out to Enfield’s Muslim and Jewish communities, who we know are already very keen to be involved.
Finally, in this unsettled time domestically, I don’t want to say too much about the wider politics of immigration, except to say that I draw from Christ’s wisdom, that when confronted with complex problems, he never relinquished the imperative to do the simple, human, loving act. Offering hospitality and welcome to those in genuine need makes us more human, teaches us that going through and beyond our own fears and insecurities is often where the green pastures lie. As with true neighbour love, it’s not about us as the rich and powerful (whose interests are so often governed by the politics of fear) giving to the poor and needy. It’s a reciprocal relationship where common humanity and hope wins out and for which both sides are richer - and I would say, more “Christ-like”.