During my working day I encounter a wide variety of different community projects, which aim to target different problems they see around them. Our guest blogger today tells of her journey to implementing a project for churches in Bristol to get involved with and the impact it has had. Sam Sayer works part time as project manager for b.friend in Bristol. For the rest of the time she looks after 2 growing boys, endeavours to stay fit and tries to avoid the housework. Sam and her family attend St. Matthews, Kingsdown.
Each and every week there are column inches in our newspapers devoted to immigration. Asylum seekers and refugees are rarely portrayed in the press in a positive light and unless you actually meet these strangers seeking sanctuary here in UK and experience the person behind the media myth, you may be forgiven for not delving deeper. But the Bible speaks clearly about drawing alongside the poor and marginalised and that includes those who may have come from a very different culture to ourselves.
I have been working with asylum seekers and refugees (an asylum seeker who has been granted leave to remain for 5 years becomes a refugee) in Bristol for the past 12 years and I can honestly say that my life has been enriched as a result. I have met people from all over the world who are fleeing persecution because of their race, political beliefs, gender, affiliation to a particular social group or sexuality. For 9 of those 12 years I worked as an advice worker for Refugee Action, a national charity. If anyone arrived in Bristol and needed assistance with accessing a G.P, housing, financial or legal help then they invariably they would come through our door. Sometimes we gave them the money and instructions of how to travel to Lunar House in Croydon to claim asylum.
It was humbling to see people arrive, alone or in families often bewildered and traumatised by the journeys they had made and having lost their status and communities. Life is especially hard if you don’t speak or read English, you have to use strange money, your local supermarket sells food you don’t recognise and the weather is cold and wet. You may also be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or clinical depression. I became increasingly aware of how isolated asylum seekers and refugees were. This is particularly true if there are few others from your country of origin living in Bristol. Clients would come into the office for advice and it was entirely possible that myself and my colleagues were the only people who expressed compassion and empathy in that week.
With rumours of funding cuts to our work and redundancy on the horizon, I started to think and pray about what I could do next. This led to the aims of b.friend: reducing the isolation of one of the most marginalised groups in society through the provision of befriending support and enabling trained volunteers from the Churches in Bristol to do this. From my conversations with church going friends in Bristol, I could tell there was a lack of general awareness about the issues that asylum seekers and refugees face. But believing that justice and mercy are close to God’s heart, and that we as a church should be concerned about suffering kept me moving forward. I felt that the Christians I knew would be motivated to respond if only they knew what the issues were, and that perhaps my responsibility was to communicate this to them.
My research led me to visit a well-established befriending project in Birmingham, Restore inspired me to start a befriending service in Bristol. I was anxious about how I was going to raise sufficient funds to get the project off the ground, but various doors opened and I got enough for b.friend’s first year. At the same time I was made redundant from my previous job and b.friend was born. I have been greatly helped by a Bristol charity ISR – Churches for Work and Social Justice who have adopted b.friend and given me an office space, admin and supervision support. 2 years and 5 months later and I have been blessed with a steady stream of volunteers from churches across Bristol and beyond who have been trained and matched with a ‘befriendee’. During this time we have been able to provide a service for 30 asylum seekers and refugees. These people have been referred to the service by Social Services, British Red Cross, Refugee Action and other voluntary sector agencies. Bristol has some very committed people delivering much needed services in this field and my befrienders works with the most vulnerable who come to their attention.
The befriending takes many different forms and is led by the service user. Sometimes people are happy to meet in a local café to share their struggles or concerns or need help in accessing other services. Quite often help is required with language support to enhance learning that is going on at the befriendee’s ESOL classes. If someone is new to Bristol or even if they have been in the city a while they might appreciate someone taking the time to show them around. If you are feeling isolated it is easy to get stuck in the area where you live. Getting out and about and experiencing the good things about your city may help to lift your mood. The befriending partnership can last for up to a year if required with frequency of meetings being weekly or fortnightly. Sometimes the partnerships don’t last very long for numerous reasons but several of them have lasted over a year and valid friendships have been forged.
When I feel overwhelmed by the constant need to find more funding and the complexities of the lives of those referred to the service I remind myself of the wonderful stories that have emerged. Maria is a 71 year old refugee from Burundi who found herself living in a high rise flat on the edge of Bristol. She was referred to the service and matched with Patricia from France who had previously worked in development abroad. The relationship between these two women was a privilege to watch. Maria had worked in refugee camps and she and Patricia had much in common not least a shared language which made it easier when things got difficult.
At the end of their year of befriending I interviewed both women to get an insight into their experience. Maria said, “It was fantastic and meant a lot. I could trust Patricia and open my heart to her to talk about different personal subjects. We could share our passion for travelling, charities and international development.” Patricia said of Maria, “Maria is precious. She’s courageous, she’s a survivor and she has the ability to communicate her strength. She’s not a little fragile thing. And we share our concern for others. I never had that feeling of being the supporter, provider. It was a relationship in the full meaning of the word.” I love this quote about Maria’s lack of fragility which is so counter cultural. The bravery and courage demonstrated by Maria is often seen in our befriendees. Ahmed, a young Iraqi Kurd and amputee, his leg was blown off in a blast in Kirkuk is another befriendee who has a passion for Chelsea football team shared with his befriender, Matthew. By some act of God’s goodness Matthew won tickets to see Chelsea play at home and took Ahmed along. Ahmed is a man of few words, especially if they are English ones but from what he has said this was a very proud moment for him, his Kurdish flag around his shoulders.
There are more stories I could tell but not enough words. It is a challenge to step out of your comfort zone and make a commitment to meet with someone from a different culture who may have a different faith. Mike, a new volunteer had a Eureka moment during one of the training sessions when he said, “I’ve realised that they are just like us!” The truth is that asylum seekers and refugees are just like us with the same need to belong that we have. They are also our neighbours. What a fantastic thing to be able to get alongside someone, learn from their culture, teach them about ours and demonstrate God’s love in a practical way.