When Community Sponsorship of refugees took off in Canada in 1978, it rested upon the philosophy that the collective journey of resettlement would foster vibrant communities of zestful diversity and crush the anti-migrant sentiments that had creeped up on many communities over the years. By pulling community members from the margins to the centre of the sponsorship project through fundraising and general information sharing, the sense of ownership and commitment would stifle any objections to outsiders in the neighbourhood.
In every way, the data substantiate these convictions. One study from the UK found that “Importantly the majority of respondents who had some kind of contact with refugees and CSS…. had shared their learning with friends and family sometimes using their experience to reframe negative views about refugees.”
Reports consistently lament the decline of social capital, perplexed how the arteries of community and neighbourhood suddenly became so blocked. Exchanging small talk and favours across the garden hedge is a dwindling phenomenon as is our membership of voluntary and political organisations. To fill this deepening vacuum, outsiders may well fix what’s crumbling on the inside.
Before the family arrived, the WRAP group in Wendover were pondering exactly what it was about the weekly community sponsorship meetups that had spilled over into multiple other projects, clubs and frequent get-togethers where community sponsorship was not on the agenda. Perhaps community sponsorship was the missing ingredient in the blueprint for flourishing communities?
One heartwarming example of the distinct trails of community sponsorship is from Raynes Park Community Church in south east London. The group welcomed a family of five in February 2017 and the impact has left cherished footprints across the community over the past three years.
Tom Underwood from the group has been an ardent community sponsorship ambassador ever since. He tells us that:
In between these photos are a year of stories, encounters and transformation. Not just the transformation of the family as they move to a place where they are safe and secure but the transformation of us as volunteers. We’ve been inspired by the warmth, hospitality & welcome of Arabic culture. We’ve strengthened our relationships and made new connections in the community. Most importantly, we’ve learnt that love and friendship overcome the cultural & language barriers that seem to separate us.
There is another photo one year on from the first. It’s a photo at the party we held to mark the first anniversary of welcoming the family. In this photo there are no longer two sides - the volunteers and the family - we are all one family together. The volunteer force has grown, there are fourteen of us here from teenagers to the retired. The mum stands on the front row relaxed and beaming, the two girls are hugged by volunteers, the toddler smiles mischievously at the front and the father embracing his new friends on the back row.
Below are some of the deeply personal and touching testimonies of community volunteers involved in the sponsorship journey.
Being beside the seaside
Getting to know the family was a crazy time full of turbulent emotions, learning how to communicate, and getting to know and interact with their brilliant individual personalities. Our first months spent in this fashion soon sparked idea after idea of all the things we looked forward to experiencing with them – and the realisation that many of these experiences would be new for them. An idea of one such experience emerged after a few months - a trip to the seaside! After all, could there be anything more quintessentially British? We soon realised that this outing would be full of entirely new encounters for our family. Heading down to Littlehampton we were fortunate to have family friends who owned a house backing right onto the beach which we could use for toilets and for getting changed. Our day consisted of the adventures of an idyllic day by the seaside: setting out our rugs for a picnic (despite the uncomfortable pebbles) swimming in the sea (despite it being freezing), playing fun games, having tea and scones, and finally the ‘holy grail’ of a day by the sea – fish and chips and ice-creams. It was an honour to see all of these -to us- ‘ordinary’ things bringing such excitement and joy to the family, a reminder of the power held by even the simplest elements of our community lives, and a revelation that even our effortless interactions can enrich lives. A power to enrich was by no means one-sided however, as the family made that day all the more exciting and joyous for us; they encouraged us to laugh (and splash!) more, and to reimagine and value the things we take for granted. Their presence continues to enrich our lives in these ways every day.
-Kiera Hayles, 18
Job takers, weak and terrorists are how the media describes refugees, but this is far from the truth and the family that we sponsored as part of community sponsorship scheme. Our family are determined, humble and one of the most generous people I know. To hear the story of the journey they have been on and the journey that they continue to be on has allowed me to understand just how amazing and resilient they are. The question that I always remind myself of is what if it was the UK that was under attack and we were forced to leave? Who would help us? The other question I ask myself is why not us? I believe that as a country we can and should help, we have a responsibility to help those who in their most vulnerable time of need especially due to war and conflict have had to flee the country they loved. A moment of kindness that I encountered with the family is when the two girls came to surprise me at University during half term which they had planned many months before. The thoughtfulness, generosity of their time and love that I felt is a feeling that has been echoed across all organisations that have been courageous and taken the step to help a family. So… my question to you is why not? What if it was you who needed help? And will you be the one to be courageous?
Rebekah Grinsted, 19
The positive impacts of being a part of the community sponsorship was that we have become close to our family and have had a great time with each other. For example, we have taken them to a zoo and the cinema when they hadn’t been before, and it gave me the sense that we were doing something life changing for the family. We were changing their lives for the better and I really enjoyed being a part of that and their journey from not knowing where to go around their local neighbourhood to being able to go in to London on their own and seeing them get better and better with their English speaking and writing. Due to the media, people have a negative perspective on refugees and migrants however, this sponsorship has helped to show the local community the opposite of what the media is portraying to us. Therefore, I believe that the community sponsorship was a great idea and a perfect chance to help open the eyes of the people who have a negative view on them. Due to them being in the same school as me I have been able to help them settle in more and they have also helped me as well in ways I could never have imagined. They helped me to become head boy due to them telling all their friends to vote for me and giving me the confidence to apply for the position as well.
Aaron Grinsted, 16