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I have been working with Asylum Seekers for the past almost 16 years, first in Oxford and for the last 6 years in London at the Jesuit Refugee Service UK. The latter is based in Wapping in East London. Most of the people we befriend are based in this poorer area of London.
The Mission of JRS is to: 1) Accompany asylum seekers and forced migrants, our brothers and sisters, 2) Serve them as companions and 3) Advocate their cause in a largely uncaring world. We have a particular concern for those who are detained under the immigration rules and for those who, having had their asylum claim refused – sometimes many times – are left both destitute and homeless in the UK. We try to carry out this work in a spirit of dignity, mutual respect and solidarity and in collaboration with other similar organisations. Our Mission is based on our faith in God, who is present in human history, even in the most tragic circumstances. Our values are: Compasssion, Hope, Dignity, Solidarity, Hospitality, Justice and Participation. We welcome people of every nationality; of all faiths and none. At JRS we do not refer to those who come to us as clients but as friends. To quote one of our friends: “JRS are family for me now. JRS supports me morally and motivates me.”
JRS is open 5 days a week but definitely the highlight of the week is the Thursday Day Centre when we welcome an average of about 100 people. I believe that the most important aspect of what we can offer is that of welcome – a welcome to those who otherwise feel unwelcome in our society. This begins by the welcome given at the door which is so appreciated by those who come. This was brought home to me recently by one young woman who said to me:” I was feeling very nervous when I arrived but I felt so happy when everyone greeted me with a smile and was so kind to me.” Or as another person described it:” We feel welcome as a new person in a new country.” This is so important when they have been anything but welcome in their own country and have met only with hostility on arriving in this land.
As well as the initial interview, the centre gives an opportunity to speak about their situation with volunteers; to receive advice on various matters; to be directed to other organisations e.g. centres for food, clothing, legal aid, health needs, courses for English and other studies; to make friends and sometimes speak their own language over a cup of tea or coffee or just to rest. They can receive a sandwich and fruit lunch and a monthly hygiene pack of toiletries. We also provide travel money for access to critical legal and medical appointments, emergency mini-grants for newly destitute individuals.
I, myself, participate in this work as a volunteer twice a week. My main role currently, together with another Sister of a different Congregation, is to conduct the initial assessment interview of each newcomer to the Centre. We do this in as friendly and informal manner as possible as we know this can be daunting for some of our friends who have had previous traumatic experiences of being questioned. It is gratifying when some, who arrive very nervous and traumatised, leave the room relaxed and smiling. Sometimes the experience for us of listening to what is a harrowing account of what they have undergone, both in their own country and during the asylum process here, can be heartbreaking. I always find the fact that so often, having escaped very difficult and often tragic circumstances from their country of origin, they are received here with both suspicion and hostility. Some of them in the course of the process have been detained in Detention or so-called “Removal Centres” for longer or shorter periods. I myself have visited people in various of these centres and know what a traumatic experience it can be for innocent people to be virtually imprisoned for an indefinite period of time. This is particularly so when children are involved. Another source of trauma is the often long waiting for a decision from their Hearings. Some of the people we interview have been in the UK for 10 years or more without any positive outcome of their claim for asylum. This frequently leads to both mental and physical stress and depression and even suicide attempts. Conversely the UK does currently offer excellent medical care for which they are hugely grateful. There are also some wonderful charitable organisations to which they can have recourse, such as the Medical Foundation for the Prevention of Persecution.
Another traumatic factor for these people to deal with is literally becoming both destitute and homeless when they have exhausted their Appeals. Some are fortunate enough to have good friends who will give them somewhere to sleep but very often they find themselves on the street or sleeping on buses etc. I know of at least one middle-aged Congolese lady who has been in this situation for the last 6 months. We do our best to find places for these people but there are so few available and they are usually full.
We are always so happy when we are able to register those we interview and therefore provide for them the little financial and other help we can on a regular weekly basis. It is truly humbling to witness their gratitude for even so little. This frequently reminds me how grateful I should be for the many blessings I receive on a daily basis.
Another inspiring aspect of my relationship with these people is the weekly Prayer Group for women held every Tuesday. This was requested by the women themselves a few years ago. There is also a similar group for men. A Cenacle Sister and I organise this, taking turns to lead the prayer weekly. At present all the participants are Christian: Catholic and Orthodox but all faiths are welcome. They represent various African countries, including Eritrea and Ethiopia and are English, French, Tigrine and Amharic speaking. I find their deep, simple and devout faith, love of prayer and capacity for silence both moving and inspiring in the face of all they have suffered and are still suffering. Again, I receive far more from them than I can give. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work with these beautiful and endearing people. I can truly say;” I feel privileged to meet and learn from each one of my refugee friends. My association with them continues to enrich my life and I give thanks that I have been given the opportunity to participate in this work of God,”