"One of the most rewarding experiences of my whole life"

Guest Blog by Sean Ryan, MBE, National Caritas Community Sponsorship Coordinator

Frank and Barbara McNamara at Community Sponsorship Awards 2018

On 12th June 2018, the Catholic parish of St Mary of the Assumption in Burnley became the second Salford parish to welcome a refugee family through sponsorship.

 St Mary’s achieved this with a considerably smaller Sponsorship Group than most, in a comparatively deprived area, thanks to the leadership of one man, their Project Manager Frank McNamara MBE, a retired civil servant.

Because of Frank, the Group won over an initially circumspect Local Authority, raised all the necessary funds and partnered with Calico Housing Association to secure a lovely home in a quiet suburb of Burnley, all within the space of five months. The many agencies with whom Frank built such positive relationships have been unanimous in their praise for his outstanding qualities. 

Sadly, Frank’s had to step down from the project due to ill-health, less than a month after the family arrived in Burnley.  But this sponsorship is only happening because of the single-handed leadership, dogged determination, boundless stoicism, tireless relationship-building and exemplary conduct of Frank.

Frank McNamara, MBE tells us about his experience of welcoming a family to Burnley:

"In June this year a young family of four moved to my hometown of Burnley, in Lancashire. This family were unlike any other who had moved to our town in recent years; they arrived from Syria because our church parishes, St Mary of the Assumption and Christ the King sponsored their arrival through the government’s ‘Community Sponsorship Scheme’.

Community sponsorship allows local groups of volunteers to take the lead responsibility for welcoming and supporting a refugee family. It’s a safe and legal method of bringing vulnerable refugees to the UK from camps in the Middle East.

The family who came to the UK with our sponsorship is a family of four: two young parents and, at the time of arrival, a two-year-old and a baby of four months. They were enthusiastic about starting their new life, and open to all the new security and safety that their new life would bring. They were, too, in good health, the baby and little boy both glowing with energy and happiness.

 Becoming an approved community sponsor takes time, effort, and a group of very dedicated volunteers. The group needs to find a house for the family for two years and raise at least £9.000. No easy task. But we were inspired by Pope Francis’s call for every parish in Europe to take in a refugee family and by the example of other Catholic parishes in our Diocese of Salford who are also sponsoring refugee families, led by the diocesan charity, Caritas.  

Now, some 9 months since we started the work of the project, I can honestly say the experience has been one of the most rewarding of my whole life. What I didn’t realise, was how the prospect of one family moving to our town would bring our local community together like nothing I have ever seen.

Our group started earlier this in autumn 2017 when a small number of us at the St Mary of the Assumption, and later joined by our sister parish of Christ the King, came together. We had all watched the war in Syria play out on our TVs and we had seen the horrific circumstances people were living in at refugee camps across the world. We knew that, however small, we had to do something.

Our Group formed itself under the leadership of Caritas, and our work can be divided into three major sectors. The first of these was to work through the challenging requirements of the official organisations. The second was to encourage the engagements and participation of our friends across the two parishes. Finally, we would care for the family for two years.

Our first major surprise was how cooperative all of the bureaucracies were. Not only that, they too seemed to catch the spirit of the project and were keen to add quality above and beyond their statutory responsibilities.. I have to single out our Local Authority and the local Housing Association, Calico Ltd. After hearing the thrust of the project they committed themselves wholly and quickly to enable us to make progress. Other organisations like JCP, NHS services and so on also joined the effort with enthusiasm and commitment. It was most gratifying that our public sector would go the extra mile so willingly.

The other task, engaging our own communities was met with equal enthusiasm. Our fellow worshippers responded with huge energy and enthusiasm. Once we had secured the house for our family our people decorated it, did all the diy jobs needed, cleaned it until it sparkled. Through our Newsletter we asked and asked for the furniture and fittings – new or used – to fill the house. We received enough for several houses! We asked for toys, prams, and clothes for the children, Again we had more than enough many times over. Parishioners who hadn’t disposable furniture etc gave money. It was overwhelming. The added bonus from this was that were able to pass our excess on to the local charity that supports other refugees and asylum seekers in the town – and was greatly welcomed by them.

Then, others from the community set it all out – from furniture layout to kitchen utensils, all cleaned and in place for the arrival of our family. We aimed to be proud of what we were putting on offer: we were proud and delighted! The community had made it all work to (near) perfection! They were wonderful. The family was delighted too.

Since moving to Burnley in June, I’m pleased to say the family have settled in well. The two young children have nursery places available for when they are ready, and the parents are making great progress in their English classes.  Our aim will be to help the father to find work as soon as his English makes it possible. Our task of caring for them is made much easier by their whole-hearted enthusiasm to their own resettlement, so we can lead them gently through each stage.

I’m proud that the work of our community has given this family of four a new life line; a family who we had never met, and whose language we don’t speak, yet with which we connected because of our shared humanity.

But I was delighted and humbled to be recognised from my work in getting the group to this point with a Special Commendation Award at Sponsor Refugees’ Community Sponsorship Awards. It was a proud moment for me personally, but I would not have achieved anything without the help and support of so many people in our community."

Reposted from The Tablet - see the full article here. 

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