human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Community Sponsorship and all that jazz

Last Sunday evening, my wife Pauline and I travelled from our home in Clitheroe through the beautiful Lune Valley to the small rural village of Hornby near Lancaster. We had been invited by a friend to a concert in the ancient church of St. Margaret. The star of the performance was Bibi Heal, a gifted and internationally renowned soprano. The evening was called “Song, opera and all that jazz”. The evening was an evening of fun and fundraising on behalf of the resettlement of a Syrian refugee family that the countryside villages around Hornby were preparing to welcome in the months ahead. Over 200 people from the villages around came to enjoy it.

The three Catholic parishes of the Lune Valley, supported by the Anglican church in Hornby and the local community have come together to resettle a refugee family under the new Community Resettlement scheme. As a rural community they had decided to become part of a growing movement of people in the UK who are interested in the Community Sponsorship of Refugees, a government scheme designed to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate refugees through local community groups taking responsibility for this rather than just leaving everything up to the state.

The scheme has taken its inspiration from Canada where private sponsorship as it is called has welcomed since the late 1970’s over 300,000 refugees from around the world. The Community Sponsorship scheme is a ground-breaking development for the resettlement of refugee families coming to the UK. It enables local communities such as the Lune Valley Refugee Sponsorship group to become directly involved in supporting the resettlement of refugees fleeing conflict and in need of protection. It encourages innovation in resettlement that has the potential to promote positive outcomes, both for refugee families and local communities.

In the countryside of the beautiful Lune Valley there is a community waiting to welcome a refugee family. They have already made the application to the Home Office department in London responsible for administering the scheme and if the group are granted community sponsorship status they will be responsible to support a refugee family from the moment of arrival in the UK. This will include:

  • Meeting the family at the airport;
  • Providing a warm welcome and cultural orientation;
  • Providing housing;
  • Identifying suitable school places;
  • Supporting access to medical and social services;
  • English language tuition; and
  • Support towards employment and self-sufficiency.

In addition, the Lune Valley Community Sponsorship group will be required to demonstrate that they have access to a minimum of £4,500 per adult so for the average family group the community will need to raise £9,000. This is to ensure they have sufficient funds to help fast track the family’s resettlement, whilst allowing for all eventualities.

I met Mike King, the project manager of the group after the concert and he told me about the Lune Valley Community Sponsorship group. He said,

We are a voluntary group formed by members of the three Lune Valley Catholic parishes, who together with other like-minded and committed supporters, have decided to take on the challenging role of welcoming and supporting a refugee family in our community.

The evening raised a fantastic £2,400 and Mike also added,

As with most fundraising events there were other benefits such as people coming forward to offer their practical help and support. In particular, as we all live in such a rural area we will need help with ESOL teaching and finding an accredited English Language tutor.

This is one of the challenges the hosting group will need to address in the coming months.

I also spoke to a young man during the musical interval and asked him about his interest in being here for the concert. He told me that Pope Francis had challenged every Catholic parish and community to take in a refugee family and respond with a generous spirit to this great humanitarian crisis. This, he said, was why he was here at the concert but added that he also enjoyed music and tonight was also about fun as much as the serious issues that force people to leave their homes and country to seek protection in a strange land.

So why is Community Sponsorship such an attractive activity for a community to embrace even though it means cooperation and partnership with national and local government? One answer, is that here in the United Kingdom, many people have had to stand by and watch as millions of refugees have been driven from their homes through war to seek sanctuary in Europe. Unlike our European neighbours, we in the UK have been frustrated that we have not been able to do anything practical to help. We have watched on our television screens the plight of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea and walking through Europe to find safety and a place of sanctuary and welcome but could do nothing practical to help. We have had reported on the news stories of hardship in the Calais “jungle” where thousands of refugees have gathered looking to find a way into the UK but again we have not been able to offer any practical help.

Community Sponsorship is a way that communities can help in a very practical and meaningful way. It allows for a real human engagement and the accompaniment that can last for at least a year or two. Community sponsorship allows for a deep human experience and offers the possibility of deeper understanding and friendship.

From the limited experience of Caritas here in the UK it would be foolish to make too many claims about the advantages of the scheme but what is certain is that there is a huge enthusiasm up and down the country for the scheme that for the first time ever allows ordinary citizens to do something extraordinary. Of course there will be challenges ahead. Already we are finding that securing the rent on a house can start eating into a community groups savings whilst they await the arrival of their facility; finding qualified English teachers in a rural area will also be difficult and giving the right type of support that eventually enables a family to come off the generous benefits of the welfare state and find work are all challenges ahead for the Lune Valley community sponsorship team.

About the author
Mark Wiggin is the Director of Caritas Diocese of Salford and part of the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) an agency of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales promoting the Community Sponsorship scheme with the Catholic Church. To date there are 62 parishes and 14 dioceses supporting the scheme.