Published on Friday 3 March 2017

Article written by Hattie Williams for in the Church Times

The Home Office has run an all-day workshop for 12 church and community groups that are preparing to resettle Syrian refugee families in the next month, through the Community Sponsorship Programme.

“You have to be patient, because you have to be thorough and show that you have done your planning. That can be frustrating for some, as it can take 4 or 5 months to get right. But once the family are here, it is a much more organic process”, said Sean Ryan who was recently appointed as the refugee resettlement officer for Caritas Salford.

“Make a point of cosying up to your local authority,” he told the group. “Obviously be humble; we are ordinary members of civil society, but we are doing these people a favour.

“You will need to establish a robust and sensible structure for your group, and allocate special roles, but always maintain a spirit of teamwork and democracy. We are volunteers, and, if volunteers are not happy, they can walk away.”

He concluded: “There is a balance to be struck between always loving and cherishing your family, and remembering that you are in a quasi-professional role, and that you are responsible for their welfare.”

Prospective sponsors must have access to about £9000 to pay for the resettlement, and approval from their local council. Other responsibilities include meeting the family at the airport; providing accommodation for a minimum of two years; ensuring access to education, social, and health services; providing English language tuition; and helping adult family members find employment.

Community sponsors have the potential to resettle hundreds of families in the next year, he said, saving time and resources, which might encourage the Government to increase of its 20,000 target.

“Progress has been a bit slow so far, but it is going to pick up,” he said. “The level of interest has been huge. The Salvation Army are about to welcome their family any day now.”

Sponsors must be approved by the Home Office after a lengthy application process, and risk assessment. Stephen King, a church council member of St Peter’s De Beauvoir, Hackney, finished applying two weeks ago, and is awaiting approval. He and his wife, and two other churchgoers, first contacted Hackney Council about the scheme in July last year.

“The Council were initially worried, as they have their own scheme through which they had already sponsored three families,” he said. “But the difference here is that the community takes responsibility.”

“St Peter’s agreed to be the lead sponsor, and we have a whole support network, including the owners of a local hardware shop — one from Iraq and one from Aleppo — who have offered help with the welcome and translating. It is a very well-knit and diverse community.”

The ‎International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been offering pre-departure services for Syrians preparing to enter the UK, since 2004. Mallory Carlson, who works with IOM to deliver “reverse cultural orientations” on Syria to local authorities and their partners, to support the integration process, also spoke at the workshop.

Community sponsors, she said, must understand that the cultural and historical differences between the UK and Syria could cause “conflict”, or even safeguarding issues during the resettlement process.

Her presentation included a short history of religious festivals, food, clothing, traditions, taboos, and family structures — both before and after the civil war in Syria — and the consequences the conflict has had on Syrian life for those forced to seek refuge at home or abroad.

A Methodist chaplain in Birmingham, the Revd David Butterworth, who attended the workshop, said that 50 refugees had come to the city in the past 12 months, but that communication had been a “nightmare” since only one spoke English, and many others were preliterate.

He recommended that potential sponsors meet Syrians where communities had already been resettled, not only to help but also “to realise they have amazing gifts to give to us; so that then the dynamic changes, and an exchange is possible”.

The Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, said afterwards: “The workshop was a real collaborative effort, with community groups and resettlement experts sharing their experience and learning from each other. It is great to see such enthusiasm for supporting refugees through Community Sponsorship.”