A warm welcome for families and children facing extreme struggles

A Chichester organisation is extending a helping hand to refugees and asylum seekers.

Part of the City of Sanctuary movement, which encourages a welcoming approach to refugees in cities around the UK, Sanctuary in Chichester was set up in January 2016 in response to the growing refugee crisis.

Hopes were to make some kind of difference to the lives of desperate people fleeing war and persecution - especially those arriving in our district.

Two years on, the network has grown to about 200 supporters, who make generous donations, attend drop-in sessions, support language learning, accompany people on outings and to appointments, provide hands-on help with housing and emergency lodgings and assist with communications and fundraising.

Development and communications co-ordinator Tazmin Mirza said: “We started by working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs) living in Chichester, but now we also have contact with young asylum seekers in Bognor and surrounding areas, as well as Syrian families living in Chichester.

“In September 2017, we set up two drop-in sessions, which have been an excellent way of bridging the gap between refugees and local residents.”

The group is driven to develop a sense of belonging and a space where people feel safe and welcome and meet friendly faces.

It also raises awareness, challenges discrimination and advocates to both local and national government bodies ‘to create a more welcoming policy’.

Tazmin said: “We want to encourage people from the community to come together with refugees and asylum seekers and to celebrate the contribution they can make to our society.

“We hope that, in time, Chichester will adopt the title ‘City of Sanctuary’ to make a public commitment to welcoming refugees.”

Sanctuary in Chichester is also in contact with asylum seekers in northern France, developing ways to expand support to those in need.

Other plans include expansion of its supported lodging arrangements for young asylum seekers and the introduction of educational activities with local schools, the college and the university.

To this end, the group is campaigning to raise £40,000 by end 2019.

To find out more, see https://sanctuaryinchichester.org/ or contact rogerpask@btinternet.com.

Sanctuary in Chichester’s members have different stories, hopes and aspirations.

But, said development and communications co-ordinator Tazmin Mirza, they are all determined to build a successful life in the UK and contribute to our society.

Tazmin said: “As volunteers, we are privileged to know so many kind and warm people, who have undoubtedly faced extreme struggles in their home countries and on their journeys to the UK.”

Members include teenage boys from Eritrea, Sudan and Iran, who were in the Calais camp before making their way to Chichester.

The Syrian families are from Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and stayed in camps in Jordan and Turkey before being granted asylum in the UK through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

They attend a range of activities and drop-in sessions.

On Mondays, 30 or so people learn and practice English, play games, cook and share food. Fridays, meanwhile, feature language practice through one-on-one discussions and games.

One-offs include a New Year’s Day concert with stand-up comedy, poetry, songs and a ceilidh.

Five younger members visited Bognor Regis ice skating rink over Christmas.

Tazmin said these young men come from families where a lot of socialising took place. Such events help them see families with young children and build a sense of belonging.

Abu and Mahmud are from Eritrea and South Sudan respectively, coming here when they were not quite 17.

Abu said: “Getting across Libya was very dangerous - living [there] for five months made me think I was stuck there forever. I was very afraid a lot of the time.

“When it got windy on the boat to Italy, I knew I would drown. The police in Italy were friendly to us and helped us.”

Mahmud said: “I was in The Jungle in Calais for several months; I thought I’d never get out. I was one of six who got into the back of a lorry. The dogs sniffed out the other five - how lucky I was to be the one that got away.

“The thing I miss most now is my mum. I really wish she could come here.

“People in Chichester are very kind. They care for you and help you.

“When I first came here I just stayed in my room and thought no-one cared for me, but I have many good friends here now.”

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