Asylum Seekers Welcome Project:
Our ‘Welcome’ project is run on Thursdays in conjunction with Oldham Unity’s food project.
Like many towns in Britain, Oldham in recent years has been a place which has seen new people arrive within its boundaries who are classed as ‘asylum seekers’. Whilst discussion might continue about the wording (asylum, refugee, sanctuary) these are still needy people on our doorstep; people who have been dispersed by the UK Border Agency and who have tried to settle temporarily in frequently sub-standard accommodation whilst their appeals are dealt with. As time has passed, we in the church have become all too aware of the traumas of their situations; of the uncertainties surrounding ‘reporting in’; of stories of early morning visits by Immigration; of deportation centres; of last minute efforts to overturn decisions and so on – but also of sharing the joys when people are given Indefinite Leave to Remain in this country. When the new building at Oldham Baptist Church opened in September 2005, it was only a matter of weeks before we were approached by Oldham Unity, a group of volunteers from varied church and non church backgrounds who were trying to meet some of the needs of asylum seekers and, in particular, those classed as ‘destitute’. We gladly became a crucial part of this partnership and week by week for more than four years this partnership has widened and deepened. Each Thursday an average of 35 food parcels (worth approximately £7 each) are given out to those who are destitute, although many more asylum seekers come to our Project to socialise, to collect items of donated clothing or household goods, to play ‘table’ games, to enjoy free hot drinks and snacks and to leave any children in the well supervised crèche. Our friends come from a cross-section of nations and the ‘buzz’ of different languages each week is a delight to hear. Many of these people arrive as strangers to us – but they soon become friends. In so many cases their English is minimal but their warm handshakes and smiles reveal their appreciation of what is offered, even though behind each smile is invariably a story of persecution and fear and facts that we may never know. As the Welcome Project has become more widely known, monetary donations towards the food parcels have come from local churches, mosques and individuals. Occasionally, there are specific efforts to supplement the parcels with more luxury items such as toiletries, coffee and fresh meat. Easy access to basic advice for asylum seekers has led to an increasing demand for input on a wide range of matters including: health issues; obtaining information from the Immigration Advisory Service; supporting people as they visit solicitors, MPs or housing providers; tracing relatives; translations; contacting the Identity and Passport Service etc etc. Whether it’s filling in forms, sourcing furniture or just listening, the demand on the voluntary team is great but the burden accepted willingly. As you would expect, there are other areas where help is given. English classes for ladies are held weekly at the church and a monthly family social is held nearby. Our regular contacts with Refugee Action, the Red Cross and Community Health seek out other benefits. Last, but not least, we have tried to meet spiritual needs and for those asylum seekers who are Christians, their desire to read the Bible cannot be underestimated and during the four years of hosting the Project we have given away over 400 Bibles in different languages. The problem of immigration consistently makes the news headlines but where persecution and torture are prevalent then people surely have the right to flee from it. Our projects at Oldham Baptist Church are a point of contact with desperate people: projects we gladly do in God’s name. .