Hythe is a small, sleepy, seaside town on the Kent-Coast with a population of around 14,000. Whilst the town slogan of, ‘where the countryside meets the sea’ makes it a honeypot for retirees and tourists alike, its proximity to the English Channel also meant that from time to time the unfolding refugee crisis has been brought to its doorstep.
‘You can see Northern France from our beach’, reports Callum McKenna of Hythe Salvation Army. ‘This, along with scores of individuals making it through the Channel Tunnel to the Motorway Service station at the top of Hythe really brought the Migrant Crisis into focus for local residents, particularly during the increased media attention the issue received in 2015. Local churches, groups and individuals rallied together to collect clothing and toiletries for those just miles away from us in the so-called ‘Jungle’. There was a vigil for Alan Kurdi, the Syrian Toddler whose lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey. People began to volunteer and raise funds for a local charity working with unaccompanied minors. There was a real desire to respond to this crisis as a community. At the same time, there was a growing sense that a lot of these activities felt like putting plasters on a deep wound and that we wanted to do something that could make a lasting impact for those effected by the horrors we saw on our news screens in Syria.’
It was around this time that local churches organised a ‘Dragons Den’ style forum to highlight refugee response work locally and around the country. Around 70 people showed up to hear about different types of work and opportunities to get involved. It was at this evening that the idea of ‘Community Sponsorship’ was first floated, inspired by the pioneering work in this area by Raynes Park Salvation Army in South London and Sponsor Refugees. ‘The idea was an instant hit!’ recounts Callum. ‘From that moment the “Hythe Community Sponsorship Group”, made up of local churches and community groups was born. We began all of the necessary arrangements to put into motion the plans for housing, finance and support. After 12 months of background work, with the support of Sponsor Refugees we held a public launch event last July. People were, once again, inspired to work together to do something positive about the crisis. The public support- from finance to furniture and language teachers to decorators- was overwhelming’
Since then, the group has submitted its application to the Home Office. ‘You might think that a small community would struggle to pull together the resources needed for community sponsorship but we’ve found quite the opposite to be true’, says Callum. ‘Something as exciting as Community Sponsorship makes a loud noise in a quiet town and it’s created a real buzz as people have come together around a common cause. We’ve seen the power of working together in action: no one organisation represented on the steering committee has all of the answers to make this work, but everyone has brought something that’s useful. Time and time again, we hear stories of Community Sponsorship having an equal, or greater, impact on the sponsorship group than on the family. We’ve not even welcomed a family yet, but I think we’ve proved that to be true already as a diverse range of people from different generations, backgrounds and perspectives, have discovered the thrill of working together to make a difference in the world.’