I am privileged to serve as one of the three unpaid Co-Chairs of the National Refugee Welcome Board which was established by the ‘crowd funding’ of members of 38 Degrees and is independently managed under the auspices of Citizens UK, a campaigning group which brings together local people in local institutions and organisations to effect local change. The Board’s other Co-Chairs are Church of England Bishop of Durham Paul Butler and Zrinka Bralo, herself once a Bosnian refugee and now the Chief Executive of the Migrant and Refugees Community Forum.
Whilst all participants accept that any refugee welcome (whether in terms of housing, schooling, language tuition, medical support and simple neighbourliness) is delivered locally, the Board was established to do a number of things:
To campaign to increase the number of (Syrian) refugees offered sanctuary in the United Kingdom;
To change the vocabulary (particularly in the media) to project the opportunities both to refugees and to host communities of a rise in the number of refugees;
To share information and good practice in the assistance to refugees once they have arrived in the United Kingdom;
To set national parameters for the local delivery of welcome and support to refugees;
To manage the expectations, and expand and fulfil the many suggestions, of practical support to refugees including, for example, offers of (previously empty or unlet) housing, university scholarships, the teaching of English by voluntary teachers and even the adoption of unaccompanied children.
The Board includes a number of Syrians who now live in the United Kingdom, a number of prominent leaders including from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths, delegates from Citizens UK groups in Milton Keynes, The South West of England, West London, the West Midlands, and Wales, experts from the major non-governmental organisations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organisation for Migration, and the British Red Cross, and representatives of the education and housing sectors, and the leadership of local authorities.
Perhaps more surprisingly the Board welcomed a manager from Ben and Jerry’s who are planning a series of public refugee awareness events around the country including ice cream, a founder of a bike project which mends second hand bikes donated by the public and gives them free to refugees, and the Chief Executive of Phone Co-op which has made £10,000 worth of SIM cards available to Syrian refugees to enable them to be in contact with family still in Syria.
At its recent meeting the National Refugee Welcome Board heard from Paul Morrison who is the director of Her Majesty’s Government’s Syrian Resettlement Programme. He has assembled a cross departmental civil service team (all of whom, like him, volunteered to staff the project) and he seems determined to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to settle 20,000 Syrian refugees in the United Kingdom in a manner which will do as little as possible to add to the trauma of fleeing Syria and becoming a refugee.
At the same meeting the Board welcomed two initiatives: the creation of a Community Welcome Plan template and the opening of a Private Sponsorship Register.
The Community Welcome Plan template has been drawn up by local, experienced individuals and organisations with the aim of ensuring that, in partnership with the statutory authorities, local communities do their best to offer a positive, long-lasting, sustainable welcome to refugees who arrive in their midst.
Separately, the Private Sponsorship Register is in preparation for a possible announcement by the British Government that, like other countries including Australia, Canada, Germany and Ireland, it will permit the admission of additional refugees if they benefit from private sponsorship of individuals or organisations. The register’s early signatures include the Methodist Church, Liberal Judaism, The Muslim Council of Great Britain, Lily Cole and Sir Bob Geldof!
This may, at first, all sound bureaucratic but what it really indicates is that men, woman and children of all faiths and none, of all colours and ethnicities, from all parts of the United Kingdom are opening their hearts and their homes, their arms and their wallets to say:
Refugees are Welcome Here!
Please join us in whatever way you can.
Submitted in a personal capacity by Rabbi Danny Rich, Senior Rabbi and Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism and Co-Chair of the National Refugee Welcome Board.