This article was published first by the International Anglican Family Network
Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city. For 20 years, it has welcomed asylum-seekers arriving in the UK. During this time, many different agencies – Government, charities, church and community groups – have been set up to support the thousands of asylum-seekers from all over the world arriving in the city. Despite this, many experience destitution and desperation in the hostile environment created by British Government policy. This is the story about how one woman, living comfortably in retirement, first became aware and involved.
Some years ago, I was shocked to read in the newspaper about a young man, an asylum-seeker, who had sewn his lips together to draw attention to his plight. He lived near me! How could I ignore what was happening on my doorstep? My husband and I got involved as volunteers in a church-run night -shelter for destitute asylum-seekers. I also volunteered as a holiday host for the charity Freedom from Torture, offering week-long holiday- and respite-breaks for asylum-seekers from elsewhere in the UK.
My husband and I were part of a large congregation at St Mary’s Cathedral, with its ‘Open, Inclusive & Welcoming’ slogan. A discussion about asylum-seekers after a Sunday service raised interest and concern about what could be done to help. Knowing how lonely and isolated the men from the night-shelter were, I suggested we might start by individuals meeting with one or two of them after church for a cup of tea and a walk to explore the sights of Glasgow. The first to volunteer was a 90-year old woman who invited two of the men to lunch with her family at home. The idea snowballed and more became involved, socialising and sharing a wide variety of activities and, in turn, learning first-hand of the difficulties and struggles people have in our country and about the cultures and circumstances from which they had fled. For some, it resulted in lasting friendships and support.
Other members of the congregation came up with more ideas. We already had a weekly ‘open house’ where volunteers showed any visitors around the church, with leaflets for them to take away. Sometimes, homeless people or asylum-seekers popped in and asked for help. As well as a cup of tea and a listening ear, we wanted to do more for them. A leaflet was prepared listing places in the city where people could get free meals, clothes, showers, support for their asylum claim and charities offering support and advice. This proved very useful and also educated the wider congregation on how to help such people whom they might meet on the bus or in the street.
As Christmas approached one year, we used our pew leaflet to ask for people to donate £5 to provide a voucher for a meal and overnight stay for an asylum-seeker in the night shelter. This proved an attractive Christmas gift and stocking-filler and led to many wanting to know more and to offer continuing financial support to the shelter.
The Cathedral Provost, who already had a range of badges for sale at the back of the church, decided to make one saying ‘Refugees Welcome’. This proved a huge success, with many of the congregation wearing them and reporting interest from passers-by. As well as ‘thumbs up’ support from passing strangers and enquiries about where the badges could be obtained, it led to many discussions sharing information about supporting refugees in Glasgow and refuting negative myths.
An English priest referred an Iranian asylum-seeking family moving to Glasgow, asking if we could welcome and support them. We visited them on arrival and helped with clothes, bedding and children’s toys. We also helped them liaise with various agencies and become familiar with the city. They were warmly welcomed at our Sunday services, and afterwards, with their young daughter readily making friends in the Young Church group and quickly learning English through playing with other children. Initially, the parents’ English was very limited so we guided them to join language classes. Strong friendships developed leading to letters of support to the British Government Home Office and giving evidence in support of the family at their immigration court hearings.
Other Iranian asylum-seeking families started attending St Mary’s and were warmly welcomed. Some asked to be baptised, confirmed and married. The Bishop also became involved with the Cathedral leadership and congregation in representations to the Home Office and immigration courts. Pew sheets were used to inform, update and inspire members to request positive action on behalf of asylum-seekers and refugees by writing to their Members of Parliament and the Home Office Minister.
The wider congregation continued to donate bedding, clothing, household goods and baby equipment for free distribution to refugees setting up their own homes, having obtained official ‘Leave to Remain’. Some members learnt to teach English for Speakers of Other Languages in order to offer classes in the church.
As the congregation had members from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, we recognised that we were wellplaced to offer one-to-one mentoring to asylum-seekers and refugees who already had some fluency in English and were seeking to gain UK-recognised professional qualifications. Many already had such qualifications and experience in their country of origin. When COVID-19 happened we had to develop new ways of continuing support during lockdowns and church closures.
Now in my 70s, life is so much richer and heart-warming than I ever envisaged. I continue to learn so much about courage, resilience, compassion and forgiveness because of my asylumseeking friends and my growing ‘family’. My husband and I now have an Iranian ‘son and daughter-in-law’ and I am ‘grandma’ to children from Sierra Leone, Gambia and Iran.