Claire Bowman reports on the Annual General Meeting of Birmingham City of Sanctuary:
The Birmingham City of Sanctuary AGM on December 2nd 2019, marked the end of an eventful year for the Birmingham branch of this vibrant national project. Between 40 and 50 people heard David Brown, chair of the Birmingham City of Sanctuary management committee, introduce the evening with an account of the remarkable piano recital given by Margaret Fingerhut on the 2nd of June 2019. It was part of her national tour in aid of City of Sanctuary and raised not only a helpful sum of money for the Birmingham City of Sanctuary Committee but also the profile of our work.
Part of the success of City of Sanctuary in Birmingham has been the good working relationship with the city council. Councillor John Cotton, who is just taking over as chair of the City of Sanctuary Partnership Board spoke warmly of his regard for the work that is being done. ‘We are waiting to see’, he said, ‘who is in charge of the Home Office post December 12th to continue to press for the lifting of the ban on the right of refugees to work – hoping that they will work with us to extend support to asylum-seekers and refugees’. David Brown added that MP Preet Gill had been very helpful in raising issues.
The First Birmingham Church of Sanctuary
Gerard, the minister of Six Ways Baptist Church in Erdington told us what it is like to have just become the first Birmingham Church of Sanctuary. ‘All churches should be a church of sanctuary’ he said. ’It should run through everything we do’. He told us that they offer easy-to-access English classes and a place of welcome. ‘The power of a simple game of dominoes cannot be overstated’ he told us. ‘People can lose themselves in it, forget their worries and overcome linguistic difficulties’. They offer toddler groups and youth groups and a food bank – ‘so you’re not so out of place if you’re the only person from that background- come and join us!’ Gerard told us that in the process of preparing their portfolio for their city of Sanctuary award they discovered all the things they could do, such as the 36,000 humans project *. ‘Hopefully we will inspire other churches’, he said. We saw photos of two Zimbabwean women who sang at the award ceremony. Prayers were said for a Christian asylum-seeker who had just been released from false imprisonment in an asylum centre. Richard Reddie from Churches together in Britain and Ireland was the guest speaker at the event. ‘We are not a typical middle-class liberal church’, Gerard told us. ‘Our demographic is not the obvious one’. Some Sanctuary Advocates were also licensed as part of the award ceremony. ’It was their idea’ Gerard said. David Brown remarked that this was a challenge to all faith groups, Christian and other. We heard that St Chads Roman Catholic Cathedral is interested in becoming a cathedral of sanctuary.
*36,000 Humans is a project devised by Bearwood Refugee Project. It’s based on a list of 36,000 people who have died on the way to Europe. The idea is to choose a name and create a work of poetry or art to commemorate that person, to be displayed during Refugee Week 2020.
Schools of Sanctuary
You don’t have to have asylum-seekers in your school to become a School of Sanctuary. One of our schools had a turnover of 100 pupils during the year – 100 in – 100 out. They found what they do as a School of Sanctuary helpful in settling the new pupils into their community. One former ‘unaccompanied minor’ asylum-seeker has risen to be head boy of his secondary school. Sanctuary School entries in the inter-school poetry competition have been highly praised by the poetry professor at Warwick University. Four Sanctuary School teachers visited Athens. There are currently a dozen primary schools and three secondary schools which have received sanctuary awards in Birmingham and another fifteen primary schools and seven secondary schools which are progressing towards it. The search is on for more volunteer retired teachers to go into schools and ‘hold their hands’ through the process. Schools are reassessed every five years to see how they are doing. Also, if there are any former asylum-seekers who would go into schools to talk about their experience and work with the staff and pupils that would be wonderful.
Universities of Sanctuary
On the subject of Universities of Sanctuary, David Brown explained that Aston and Birmingham Universities are not interested as yet but Newman University is proceeding through the process towards becoming one. Not far away Warwick University has been a university of sanctuary for some time. Many universities offer scholarships to asylum-seekers, and asylum-seeker, refugee and migration issues have now become subjects to study at university level.
Liz Parkes, who runs Birmingham City Council’s local libraries department told us that she came ‘with a commitment and an assurance that the libraries department is keen to do more’. Liz looks after ten sites. Libraries were restructured in 2007 into three tiers depending on opening hours. Stirchley is open longer than many because it has a self-service machine, which can be supported by volunteers. There is a lively Friends group. The refugee hostel allows its address to be used for asylum-seekers, enabling them to have temporary membership. Jigsaws are an important feature. People can just wander over and put a few pieces in. It’s part of being a place of welcome, a safe base for activities for asylum-seekers and refugees. West Midland libraries have produced a brochure detailing the potential benefits of libraries for refugees and asylum-seekers, which will be launched in March.
Gardens of Sanctuary
Management committee member Cath Palgrave talked to us about gardens of sanctuary. There aren’t any yet in Birmingham but we’re getting there. Gardening can offer the opportunity to relax outdoors in natural surroundings. Life can be chaotic for asylum-seekers. Kushinga Garden in Selly Oak, which is run by and for asylum- seekers is a remarkable project, attracting people from all over the world, especially North Africa. The emphasis is on growing vegetables from countries of origin.
Martineau Garden is an established community garden which welcomes refugees. Other gardens include Masefield Garden and St Pauls City Farm in Balsall Heath. All of these places have Facebook pages, where further information can be found.
The new website
The new City of Sanctuary website has been developed for us by Peter Doubtfire, coordinator of the Peace Hub in Bull St Birmingham. You are invited to go online and sign up to our supporters list.
Emma Birks spoke about the work of Asylum Matters, a group which lobbies politicians to improve conditions for asylum-seekers and refugees. Emma is employed to cover the West Midlands, holding politicians to account and trying to bring about changes in legislation, seeking to lift the ban and give those newly arrived the right to work to support themselves. Whoever is in power after the election the work will go on. Emma introduced us to two new posters with advice to asylum-seekers and their supporters about the process they have to go through to gain settled status and what standard of accommodation they are entitled to. Asylum Matters are planning a campaign around destitution issues in the near future.
When questions were invited from the floor Peter Rookes, secretary of Birmingham Council of Faiths asked whether mosques, gurdwara’s and synagogues had been approached to apply for sanctuary status. The answer was that the progressive synagogue is interested and that possibly Clifton Road mosque may wish to become a mosque of sanctuary.
The Cost of seeking Asylum
David Forbes, who is an independent legal advisor to asylum-seekers and refugees told us just how much people have to pay to gain the right to remain in this country – and also how much it costs to renew every 2 years. Asylum seekers are having to spend all the money they have, even their savings. It costs £2000 per individual, so for a family with several children it is practically unaffordable, cruel and extreme – taking large amounts of money from already poor people every two years and without them having recourse to public funds. It can effectively amount to slavery.
In addition, it can take many months to get a decision because the government has been reducing the number of civil servants working on asylum claims. Health surcharges are also levied to make matters worse. The amount has risen exponentially in recent years. We were all urged to continue to lobby whoever gets into power on December 12th to ensure that these issues remain in the forefront of people’s minds.
The National City of Sanctuary Team
A question was asked about who runs City of Sanctuary nationally. The answer is that there is a small team of national staff. Ben Margolis covers the West Midlands and most of Southern England. As chair of our group David Brown is on the phone to Ben most weeks and Ben attends our meetings from time to time. We are sharing good practice across the national network. The national team are always keen to hear the views of those who have been through the asylum system to inform what we do.