An SVP Conference in Burnley near Manchester has become heavily involved in supporting Asylum Seekers as part of an ecumenical project called Building Bridges.
Cynthia and Michael Hewitt, two Conference members from St John the Baptist parish, Burnley, help at a Tuesday afternoon Drop In Session hosted at their local church which has been set up by both Christians and Muslims to help build interfaith relationships in the area.
Around 20-30 asylum seekers come to the sessions each week. Together with members from 5 other local church groups of different denominations, the SVP members help with English Language teaching, provide food and drinks, and play with and care for the little children.
When the asylum seekers (known by the group as ‘New Neighbours’) first arrive at the drop in centre, SVP members ask them for their date of birth, help register them with a doctor and dentist and accompany them to these appointments. They provide support ranging from celebrating birthdays to helping them find a solicitor. They also provide welcome packs which include everything from cutlery to bedding, and enable them to settle into their hostel or home a little more comfortably than they would otherwise do.
Michael explains that the Asylum seekers they help come from dreadful situations in countries which include Iraq, Iran, Congo, India, Pakistan and Ghana and have endured war, terror, persecution and trafficking.
Because they come without visas, and usually without passports, they are classed as ‘illegal immigrants’ until they can convince the UK authorities that their case warrants that they receive refugee status. Michael and Cynthia have accompanied New Neighbours to the Home Office in Liverpool where asylum seekers face lengthy interviews of up to six hours.
While their case is assessed, they receive £7 a week for living expenses so cannot afford basic necessities and are dependent on charities and churches for donations of food and clothes.
The SVP gathers donations such as these from generous members of the church and community, and Michael and Cynthia store these in their home. At the centre, the donations are placed on tables and the New Neighbours are invited to take what they need. This method of choosing ensures their dignity is respected.
There is a very valuable interfaith element to the Drop in centre. Michael explains that the group is made of Christians, Muslims and Hindus who soon find what they have in common – a desire for peace, safety and friendship.
Cynthia says: “Helping Asylum Seekers has totally changed our lives for the better and we feel more fulfilled. We have made lots of loyal friends and it has changed our attitude to refugees and asylum seekers.
Michael says: “If we wanted, Cynthia and I would never have to buy any food ever again because our New Neighbours would feed us, even just on their £7 a week. They are so generous, and we have made so many good friends. We risk losing those friendships if they are deported”.