Welcoming Asylum Seekers

There are always too many of them. ‘Them’ are the fellows of whom there should be fewer – or better still none at all. And there are never enough of us. ‘Us’ are the folks of whom there should be more” (Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives).

I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ (Jesus in Matthew Ch 25 : v 35)

Six years ago I returned to the Salesian community in Bootle on Merseyside after an absence of sixteen years working in different parts of the Salesian British province. After my priestly ordination in 1974 I spent fourteen years teaching religious education in the Salesian High School in Bootle, a demanding but very rewarding mission. I have now retired from teaching and am much more involved in retreat ministry which takes me to many corners of the world in addition to working in the UK. When back home in Bootle I try to support the work of the organisation Asylum Link Merseyside. Asylum Link Merseyside, is a charity which exists to provide a friendly welcome and practical support to a range of asylum seekers who come through its doors month after month, providing a drop-in centre which is open from 9am-4pm Monday to Friday.

They come from places as far afield as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and many parts of Africa such as Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe. After the horrors of the holocaust, post-war governments embraced the Geneva Convention which promised a sympathetic hearing to anyone who had encountered violence or persecution as a result of their religious, political, racial or gender differences and was seeking a place of safety (asylum). However, since the 1950’s the political climate has changed considerably and western European governments have grown increasing repressive in their policy and treatment of asylum seekers. Instead of listening sympathetically to their stories border officials largely operate a culture of suspicion. At present the current rate of acceptance of asylum seekers in the UK is 1 in 4. Those who are accepted are not permitted to work, they are given less than £40 a week to live on and if their asylum request is rejected, they are allowed one appeal. If that is rejected they become officially destitute with no money, nowhere to live, no food and no clothes. Asylum Link Merseyside provides food, clothing, housing advice, guidance, English classes, cookery and sewing classes and above all a friendly safe place for people who have often experienced appalling violence, rejection and mistreatment. Many of them have experienced very difficult and stressful journeys. When they arrive in the UK instead of being made to feel safe they experience further rejection and mistrust from home office officials.

Cooking DemonstrationI offered a little support alongside many good people who donate food, clothes and furniture to the centre. As a Salesian priest having worked in schools for many years I also wanted to help our young people to learn some of the real facts about the situation of asylum seekers, especially in view of the frequently negative coverage in the tabloid press. So I like to visit schools and share with the pupils some of the realities that asylum seekers face. It’s interesting to hear remarks like ‘I never knew the family of Jesus were refugees.’ As a former teacher I know they will have been taught this, but it clearly isn’t getting connected to the world we live in. Most young people have not actually met an asylum seeker so I like to take one or two into the schools. It is not easy for all to share all the details of their stories, especially for women who are victims of rape and other forms of violence. But seeing and meeting a real person rather than an ‘asylum seeker’ is so important for our young people in breaking down some of the prejudice and negativity they have built up. At the end of these sessions I usually ask the students if they have changed their views. Not all would say they have but many do and I have been struck by the number of teachers who have said things like, ‘I didn’t know that’, or ‘I wasn’t aware of that’.

A final thought to ponder. I am always struck by the generosity of the British people to television fundraising events such as Comic Relief or Sport Relief, as well as responses to tragedies such as the recent earthquake in Haiti. We are touched by the plight of the poor of the world, but as soon as any of the poor of the world reach our own doorsteps and arrive here in Britain, many say, ‘why are they here?’ or ‘they should go back to their own country’.

I think that Jesus puts the Gospel into two brilliant but very challenging one liners. “The Father and I are One” (John Ch 10, v30) and “whatever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do to me” (Matthew Ch 25, v40). Both these statements challenge me every day.

Here are some comments from asylum seekers about Asylum Link Merseyside.

Best thing – friends, people. ALM is a living example of what it preaches.’

Everything is good here. I lived in Birmingham, and London and Dover. Nobody helped in those places. I never saw a place like asylum link there. It’s friendly, welcoming, and safe.’

Fr Michael Cunningham, Salesian of Don Bosco

The Salesians of Don Bosco are a Catholic Religious order who continue St John Bosco’s service of the young and the poor. The work of the Salesians in the UK includes schools, parishes, youth clubs, a youth retreat centre, a publications department and volunteering programmes in the UK and overseas.

Photo: women helped by Asylum Link Merseyside. [Photo credit: Asylum Link Merseyside]