There are 22.5 million refugees in the world today and a quarter of them come from a single country, Syria. Most of the worlds refugees, are sheltered in poor, developing countries which are struggling to cope with a huge, extra burden they are ill equipped for and Syria is no exception. More than 5 million displaced Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. Turkey alone has taken 3.4 million and in Lebanon, nearly one in four of the population is now a refugee.
The sheer scale of human suffering is almost impossible to grasp. As Christians we want to help all refugees from every country but this morning I am going to concentrate on the plight of Syrian refugees in particular. Why Syrian refugees? Not just because of the huge humanitarian disaster but because in pre-conflict Syria, Christians and Muslims lived side by side sharing many of the same sacred sites and have found it relatively easy to integrate into a non-Muslim host country. In the next few minutes, I am going to talk about three different initiatives, and I hope that they will inspire you to become in some way involved in alleviating the suffering. Members of several different Battersea churches have been desperate to help but have felt isolated, ineffective and powerless. A year ago, an open deanery meeting to look at community sponsorship turned into Battersea Welcomes Refugees, when some of us came together determined to pool resources, explore what was already happening in Wandsworth and work together to do something effective. The first meeting was almost exactly a year ago today and Libby Bradshaw, Sarah Bryant and I were present from St Mary’s. Battersea Welcomes Refugees became passionate about promoting a particular project which we felt made a real difference: The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.
The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme was set up in 2015 when images of three year old Alan Kurdi’s tiny body, washed up on a Turkish tourist beach, shocked the world and there was huge public demand for governments to do more to rescue families from the hellhole which Syria had become. The UK pledged to take 20,000 of the most vulnerable and traumatized from the vast refugee camps on Syria’s borders and resettle them in Britain by 2020.
There are a whole spectrum of ways in which you can support the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. These range from giving your time to help welcome them into the community, to giving your skills to make properties ready for them to move into. Libby has put together an online questionnaire to help you identify how you might be able to help. You can find it in the next St Mary’s newsletter. It is very user friendly and takes 2 minutes max to complete. With it you will find a link to a gift list for furnishing a home for a refugee family. Just like a wedding list, it has items for every budget, from beds to washing up bowls. Now the UK is a crowded island and there is already a shortage of social housing, so the government decided that if British people genuinely wanted the country to take in these refugees, they would have to work together with their local councils to make it happen. Private landlords would need to be willing to rent out two or three bedroom flats at slightly below the market rate for a couple of years. And although the rent would be paid for from a special government fund, councils would still have to supply a support package to the family. The Local people who had demanded that the government take action, would need to furnish the accommodation and help to integrate Syrian families into their community.
The response from councils has varied. 46 local authorities refused to take any families at all. Yorkshire and the North East, two of the poorest regions in England have been incredibly welcoming as have some of the most isolated parts of Scotland and the Western Isles. The feedback we have had from neighboring London boroughs has been overwhelmingly positive, Kingston which resettled 26 families. Lambeth, which originally agreed to take 20, now has 23 and is looking forward to welcoming more. Wandsworth pledged to accept 10 but so far only two have actually been found homes.
However, I am delighted to tell you that two of the churches, which form part of Battersea Welcomes Refugees have sourced properties. One couple from St Peters on the Winstanley Estate, who are temporarily relocating to Cambridge have offered their two bedroom flat and members of the congregation at St Michaels, near Wandsworth Common, have actually bought a three bedroom property off Battersea park road, specifically to rent out to refugees. Both should be ready to welcome Syrian families in the next couple of months.
It is a challenge in a wealthy area like Wandsworth, where rental income is greater than housing allowance, but we desperately need more landlords! Perhaps this is something you might like to consider.
The second initiative, which I would like to share with you is the work done by Refugees at Home. Not many of us have spare properties but you may have a spare room you would be willing to offer a desperate refugee or asylum seeker. The UK charity Refugees at Home matches up generous hosts with potential guests. You can have someone to stay for as few or as many nights as you choose. The hosts I have spoken to each began extremely nervously by offering one person a room for one night but then found it one of the most fulfilling things they have ever done and have gone on to have a succession of refugees to stay ever since. You can find some of their stories in the display area.
Why is there such a desperate need for short term accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers? All sorts of categories of people are fleeing to this country to escape conflict and persecution and there isn’t time now for me to go into all their differences or the complexities of the UK asylum and refugee process, though I am happy to talk about it later, however I can assure you that anyone you help through Refugees at Home or any of the other charitable initiatives I mention today will have been through the lengthy beaurocracy of government checks and will be genuine and legally entitled to be here.
There are a host of grassroots organisations in Wandsworth working to help refugees both here and the Middle East. Katherine Low Settlement which St Mary’s sponsors, hosts some of them and the third initiative I would particularly like to draw your attention to is Love to Learn which takes place at KLS on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 7. This is a homework club for children from refugee backgrounds. There are a whole host of countries of origin: from Iraq to Iran, Afghanistan to Eritrea. Each child is paired with an adult mentor and once homework is over there are lots of activities. This year they have ranged from learning Capoeira to building electronic circuits. Each week the older children in the Wednesday group have a mini master chef competition, where two children take it in turns to budget, cook and clear a two course meal for 20. Girls and boys, Christian and Muslim work and play together. I volunteer at the Wednesday session and am lucky enough to mentor a super 12 year old Somali girl from a devout Muslim family. She has black belts in karate and judo, is a talented footballer, loves boxing and is in the top set of her school for every subject. She was one of six Battersea children selected to visit Oxford University in the hopes that one day they would be inspired to apply there. All the children are inspirational and I can guarantee that anyone who volunteers there will both enjoy it and have their world view expanded. If you are coming to the lunch afterwards, you can meet Sandra who volunteers at Love to Learn and also runs art projects for refugee children in Greece.
In summary, there is a huge selection of ways through which you can get contribute to refugee welfare. If you love baking you could raise money by selling cakes after a service. If you have spare time you could volunteer at Love to Learn, the South London Refugees Association or one of the many other Wandsworth refugee organisations. If you have a spare room you could host a refugee guest for a night or two. You could even become a refugee landlord. Fill in Libby’s questionnaire and let it inspire you!
We at St Mary’s are already a hugely generous and giving community. I feel passionately about the plight of refugees and I hope that in some small way I have passed on some of that passion to you and in doing so you will feel a wish to become involved and send a message to those who feel utterly despairing, abandoned and lost, that there are people out there who care.