Lucy Irven was appointed as the part-time Diocesan Refugee Support Group Facilitator about 3 months ago. Here she offers her reflections and observations about her experiences during that time

photo of Lucy IrvenPerhaps what has struck me most in my first weeks in this role is the number of refugees and asylum seekers we are trying to help and the level of hardship that so many are suffering. Whether it be a result of the poor accommodation that is provided, the inadequate funds they receive or the time it takes for decisions to be made by the Home Office, there is no doubt that they are experiencing great difficulties. Fortunately, I have also encountered some remarkable men and women, Parishes and communities that are coming forward to support them. They are actively offering the Welcome, Sanctuary, Hospitality and Celebration that we identified as the key elements to our Diocesan response to the refugee crisis.

As Pope Francis reminded us in 2013, refugees and asylum seekers ‘are human people,…, who are appealing for solidarity and assistance, who need urgent action but also and above all understanding and kindness.’ Refugees want to be with their families and they want to be safe. They miss home and their culture, their old way of life. They also want to contribute their skills, use their qualifications, and share their experiences and knowledge. ‘Have I made the right decision?’ I heard one Syrian asylum seeker say. His life has been on hold for two years since arriving, waiting for a decision, far from his family and tired with the discomfort of his daily life. Fortunately, he has recently been given refugee status so now he can work and take steps to improve his situation. From what I have learnt in the last couple of months, it is important that we make ourselves available to support people such as this, to accompany them through the asylum process and assist them in finding the sanctuary that they so urgently seek.

When I visited St Augustine’s Centre, in Halifax, I saw such a response in action. Every available space was being used; there were people sitting at tables having interviews, some working in pairs on the computers, others preparing a meal in the kitchen or sitting outside in groups. But, amid the bustle, everyone was calm and I was greeted with smiles, some offered me a drink and others to show me round. I sat in on an English lesson which was attended by men and women of several nationalities and a baby sleeping in a pushchair by the door. There was a gentle murmur as some helped others with translations but everyone got involved and I was really impressed by the respectful atmosphere. As I have travelled around the Diocese, I have heard of and seen for myself this example of welcome and sanctuary repeated at the St Vincent’s Centre in Leeds, DASH in Huddersfield, Wakefield City of Sanctuary and CHAS@St Vincent’s in Bradford.

It is encouraging to see such an effective response already in place and the SVP, Catholic Care, St Monica’s Housing and the Leeds Justice and Peace Commission, all members of the Diocesan Refugee Support Group, are an essential part of this. If you would like to get involved whether as an individual or Parish group then do please get in touch as there are opportunities in many areas of support including volunteering , campaigning, fundraising and prayer.