During late October and early November, over 50 of our ESOL and drop-in students had the opportunity to go to Cannon Hill Park to take part in the Green Lungs project, an initiative to welcome Birmingham’s new arrivals to the green spaces of the city.
During the workshops they explored the park, reflecting on its sights and sounds, and of course never missing an opportunity to learn a bit of new vocabulary along the way! It was notable that the students were all struck by this oasis of peace and fresh air in a city they are learning to call ‘home’.
Last Thursday we returned to the MAC for the launch of the exhibition which was created using the students’ words and images. With film footage, pictures and words, and sound installations it represents some of what the students’ experienced during the workshop days.
There is perhaps nothing as “English” as a city park, and yet the Victorians who founded many of them were great explorers and the plants come from all over the world. The students who participated were invited to plant bulbs in Cannon Hill Park, symbolic of their welcome to the city and an invitation to put down roots here and become part of all that the city is.
The launch, as much as the whole project, was a wonderful opportunity for all of those who took part: the students, and those of us lucky enough to accompany them in their discovery of this place.
These brief snippets try to paint a picture of the value of the experience:
· It was amazing to watch several of our students’ faces light up when they saw their photos or their work on the wall. It would be easy to underestimate how precious that representation of their contribution is for those who can feel undervalued by a society who refuses to let them work, or from which they feel excluded by a lack of linguistic ability.
· It must be so easy for our pre-entry students (absolute beginners) to forget how much they have to contribute, so it was a great pleasure to see one of them not only demonstrating that he was something of an expert when it came to planting, but that he suddenly discovered ways to communicate his knowledge to others. We watched his self-confidence grow before our very eyes.
· As we walked around the park after planting our bulbs, one of the students turned to ask whether it would be possible to come back and plant trees, saying “Because trees last for a very long time and they would be here even long after we have gone.” Those of us who heard were deeply touched by this desire to leave a mark on this place which has made them welcome.
We are very grateful to Ampersands Projects, Cannon Hill Park and the MAC for the fabulous opportunity and warm welcome they offered to us throughout the project.
The exhibition is open in the downstairs gallery at the MAC until 31st January. Do take the time to go and see, watch and listen to our students’ work.
On 15th November three courageous people, including one of those we have helped here at the sanctuary were given the opportunity to address the “Refugees Welcome?” All Party Parliamentary Group inquiry at the Houses of Parliament. The personal testimonies followed the collection of written submissions to the inquiry. Emma Birks, our Regional Asylum Activist led the Birmingham agencies’ joint submission and arranged for the testimonies to be given through STAR, Student Action for Refugees.
As they told their stories, the reality of seeking asylum in the UK and problems in the support system were laid clearly before the politicians with heartfelt simplicity. In their evidence the refugees who spoke made clear that they wanted to contribute to making life that little bit easier for those who follow them through the asylum system in the UK and the difficult period that can follow the granting of refugee status.
At the end the chairperson, Thangam Debonnaire MP, thanked them for their words and their honesty and assured them that this was not just about writing a report, but the inquiry was borne of a desire to really make a difference to the system. It is very easy for asylum seekers, refugees and those who try to make them welcome to feel that they have been abandoned by the political system. They and we can be reassured that at least some of those in parliament genuinely want to understand the realities and make life better for those caught up in the asylum system. Those of us who have sought asylum, and those of us who have met with and worked alongside them, have very important stories to tell in order to project a different image, a more real image than those seen so often in the media.
What was also abundantly clear in their words was that, where the official systems had failed them or left them confused or feeling unwelcome, it was the voluntary agencies, places like St Chad’s Sanctuary, who had offered them signs of hope, friendship and welcome.
"The positive impact was from the hosting of volunteering agencies who want to show us the 'real UK'"
“When I was waiting for my papers, I meet wonderful people in St. Chad’s Sanctuary in Birmingham. Really wonderful, believe me. When these problems happened to me, these people are like my big family. I can pass this hard time with my big family supporting me."
“ ...What about people who have nobody to help them?”
We have an incredibly important role to play and each and every smile and word of welcome we offer has a value beyond measure. Not that it is all about self-sacrifice … it is also an amazing privilege to journey with so many wonderful people and be invited to be a part of their stories. We should never underestimate what simple gestures of humanity can mean to someone who just needs to know they are welcome here. We should never forget our first vocation is to speak that message to all who enter through our doors.
Here is a piece written by Sister Margaret, and was recently featured in 'The Tablet'
Sister Margaret Walsh, of the Infant Jesus Sisters, who runs St Chad’s, in Birmingham, a sanctuary which helps the constant flow of refugees and asylum seekers that arrive every day, gives thetablet.co.uk an insight into their work
Since our records began, more than 57,000 people have signed in. At the moment about 150 come each week for practical items and a further 150 for English language classes. We have provided over 53,000 items of clothing, more than 10,000 bags of food, and around 3,000 hygiene packs.
Many who come are newly arrived and are still wearing what they wore on their long and hazardous journeys from home. We only see most people once or twice because they are frequently moved elsewhere in the country or may face deportation.
Mohammad, from Syria, joined my religious literacy group last week. In 2012, he barely escaped with his life while living in Damascus and has not had a good night's sleep since he left because he suffers the most awful flashbacks of what happened to him and his family.
His journey to Britain took him through several countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. He survived two journeys in dangerously overcrowded boats, one of which capsized but, thank God, all passengers, including three young children were saved.
That journey cost him US$1,500 (£1,000) and he was forced on to the boat at gunpoint. Mohammad is a devout Muslim whose best friend in Syria was a Christian. He enjoys sharing his faith and he listens to, respects and appreciates the faiths of others. He tells me that I remind him of his grandmother whom he loved and admired!
"Mohammad has not had a good night's sleep since he left because
he suffers the most awful flashbacks of what happened to him and his family."
We have over 70 volunteers and a full programme of activities five days a week. Thanks to the generosity of benefactors and volunteers, we are able to give practical help, especially to those who are destitute and can offer immigration and welfare advice to a growing number.
We also teach 10 levels of English language including a religious literacy course.
It is a great privilege to offer a welcome and some sanctuary to these lovely people. Asylum seekers come from many parts of the world; few speak English. Every day we meet the most gracious people; they are full of hope and courage despite appalling stories of persecution and loss.
However, many are too heartbroken and beaten down to be cheerful. It can be very difficult for us too because often we can do little but suffer with them.
The widely publicised pictures of Aylan washed up on a Turkish shore have touched the hearts of many and there is now a much greater outpouring of goodwill in our country towards asylum seekers.
The outpouring of support for refugees since the death of Aylan has been 'a miracle'Outpouring of support for refugees since death of Aylan is 'a miracle' (PA)
I have worked in this area for 16 years and the change in public attitudes for the good really is a miracle. Before these heartbreaking images appeared, we often battled with negativity and with the many myths surrounding those who come here for protection.
Aylan’s father, who also lost his wife and an older son in the same tragedy, prayed that their deaths would do some good. I believe his prayers have been answered. A baby found among the reeds by the river Nile changed the course of our ancestors’ history (Exodus 2:3); we continue to hope and pray that Aylan’s tragic death will be spoken of and remembered by generations yet to come.
As the time goes on, we are welcoming back those we helped in the early days. They come to say thank you and so often they tell us that we are their only family in the UK. Always they want to give a helping hand. They are full of gratitude. It is very humbling to be part of their journey; we have entertained many angels since we decided to welcome people here.
In the words of Pope Francis: “They are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters; hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war – seeking a better life, seeking happiness.”
St Chad’s Sanctuary is a charity that relies entirely on donations to continue its work. Visit their website at www.stchadssanctuary.com for more information
The St. Chad's 'Open Evening' will soon be here, so now is the time to put it into your diary.
A big thank you to Eric and The Office Furniture Warehouse in Birmingham for their fantastic donation of a metal storage cupboard. It will be used to store our academic textbooks while not in use, keeping them safe and sound!
A scared and tired father
A scared and tired father
A woman pregnant and in pain
An uncertain future for an unborn child
Who’ll face anger, exclusion, and disdain
Behind a census of statistics
We still hide the human face
Of a desperation that dares to dream
- That begs of another, grace.
But that one who said he had nothing,
There’s nothing here left to give
Was it in putting a face to a number he knew
You deserved not just to survive but to live?
And when he stretched an open hand
Did God’s kingdom touch this earth?
And is this still an incarnation moment
When we dare believe in the other’s worth?
When we smile ‘come in and welcome’
To those whose lives are tattered and torn
In these the tiniest glimmers of hope
– Each day anew the Messiah is born.
by Stephanie Neville
Agnes Tanoh is a regular attender at Sr. Margaret’s BSOL (Bible for Speakers of Other Languages) class. The class have been studying the Lord’s Prayer, and were asked to write their own versions of it for homework.
A word to my God.
Why can’t I overcome?
These are the questions I ask myself daily.
Even though times are hard,
In this difficult situation,
I have taken the decision to have confidence in You.
You are the same today and tomorrow,
You are faithful for you have never let me fall.
This is why I have never doubted You
You provide for my needs according to Your generosity.
You are my support, my refuge and my stronghold
Apart from You, I have no one else to call on
Even if everything is hard, I have decided to believe in Your word.
YawheJire, you will provide.
Glory to You for all eternity. Amen
by Agnes Tanoh
Thanks to her appearance in the BBC’s Inside Out documentary, one of our regulars Agnes was contacted by the Guardian newspaper. Below is the picture that appeared in their Saturday supplement. Well done Agnes!