by Anne Tracey, John Henry Newman parish
The middle of January this year saw some very wintery weather, with rain, wind and sleet seeming to take it turns. And this was the week that we in Newman parish had offered to help with providing a night shelter for asylum seekers who might otherwise have had spent these freezing nights on the streets. We were not sure how it would work out and some of us were a little nervous about it.
Six local churches were involved in the project which was set-up by WYDAN, the West Yorkshire Destitute Asylum Seekers Network. Cross Gates Methodist church provided the accommodation, and with other local churches – St James Manston, Christchurch Methodist/ URC Halton, Newman parish, and Colton Methodists provided all that was needed. In total an astonishing 84 people volunteered to help. Others donated food, clothing, and cash, – £685 from Newman churches alone. The plan was to provide the shelter for just one week, after which another group of churches in Leeds would take over the task, in this way hopefully providing safe places to sleep through the worst of the winter.
On the first day our nine guests were welcomed by volunteers and helped to feel at home in the church hall – now transformed with beds, a dining table, settees, and board games. Each evening delicious meals appeared from the adjoining kitchen. – The Punjabi curry cooked by our own Michael Clayton on Wednesday night was a real feast. Teams of volunteers provided friendship and company during the evenings, some stayed overnight, others arrived each morning to prepare breakfast and packed lunches. A dentist offered free dental treatment for our guests. There were many donations of clothes and money.
Our guests make no mistake, are in a terrible situation. They have often have suffered danger and great loss to get here and the future is an unknown, even supposing they get permission to stay in this country. Most speak little English, yet they need to find their way through complex appeals procedures, helped if they are lucky by an overworked charity sector. Some asylum seekers are highly skilled and educated but all are forbidden to work and survive on just £5 a day from the Home Office. And, invaluable as schemes such as ours are, imagine depending upon such make-shift and uncertain shelter week after week. Their treatment is simply shocking, inhuman. Yet, in spite of all this, there was an amazing spirit of joy in that church hall. Both guests and volunteers gave so much of themselves in friendship and cheerfulness. The kindness of God felt present.
At the beginning of the week, we were a crowd of strangers, – men from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan… volunteers from different Christian traditions…… we were Moslems, Christians and those of no faith.- And yet, out of this mix, a remarkable atmosphere of friendship, and at times of pure celebration, emerged. It was such a pleasure and an honour to be part of that brief community.
Revd Susan Greenhart of Cross Gates Methodist church recorded these comments from our guests:
“This is the first time I’ve felt safe in a long time.”
“It is good to share food together.”
“I live this day. No past. No future. All is gone. The future? Only God knows. Now is all I have.”
“I am happy for this place. It is good. But family. I need family.”
“My heart is warm when I meet good people. A week passes. I have to say goodbye, and my heart hurts.”
Some of our volunteers offered these thoughts –
‘It surprised me that in spite of everything they’d gone through, there was no bitterness. In fact there was a feeling of peace. I was so impressed and moved by them.’
‘I was talking to one of our guests in the middle of the night as he couldn’t sleep , he left me with a sense of his hopelessness. A young man with his life ahead but with no plans and no hope, can’t be right. ‘
‘What struck me about the men I met was their very real gratitude for what they were receiving, and in receiving they wanted to share. ‘
‘I was asked if I could take four men to Dewsbury for urgent dental treatment on Saturday. I was happy to do this and the trip went very smoothly and everyone received the treatment needed at Dewsbury town hall where the dental clinic was set up. I will be more than happy to do it again.’
As I said goodbye to one of our guests we shook hands, and he said ‘Goodbye, my sister. That said it all for me.
WYDAN hopes to extend the Night shelter scheme next year. To find out more go to www.wydan.org.uk.
Also, of course, they are always grateful to receive donations.