Sister Margaret Walsh, of the Infant Jesus Sisters, who runs St Chad’s, in Birmingham, a sanctuary which helps the constant flow of refugees and asylum seekers that arrive every day, gives thetablet.co.uk an insight into their work
Since our records began, more than 57,000 people have signed in. At the moment about 150 come each week for practical items and a further 150 for English language classes. We have provided over 53,000 items of clothing, more than 10,000 bags of food, and around 3,000 hygiene packs. Many who come are newly arrived and are still wearing what they wore on their long and hazardous journeys from home. We only see most people once or twice because they are frequently moved elsewhere in the country or may face deportation.
Mohammad, from Syria, joined my religious literacy group last week. In 2012, he barely escaped with his life while living in Damascus and has not had a good night's sleep since he left because he suffers the most awful flashbacks of what happened to him and his family. His journey to Britain took him through several countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. He survived two journeys in dangerously overcrowded boats, one of which capsized but, thank God, all passengers, including three young children were saved. That journey cost him US$1,500 (£1,000) and he was forced on to the boat at gunpoint. Mohammad is a devout Muslim whose best friend in Syria was a Christian. He enjoys sharing his faith and he listens to, respects and appreciates the faiths of others. He tells me that I remind him of his grandmother whom he loved and admired!
We have over 70 volunteers and a full programme of activities five days a week. Thanks to the generosity of benefactors and volunteers, we are able to give practical help, especially to those who are destitute and can offer immigration and welfare advice to a growing number. We also teach 10 levels of English language including a religious literacy course. It is a great privilege to offer a welcome and some sanctuary to these lovely people. Asylum seekers come from many parts of the world; few speak English. Every day we meet the most gracious people; they are full of hope and courage despite appalling stories of persecution and loss.
However, many are too heartbroken and beaten down to be cheerful. It can be very difficult for us too because often we can do little but suffer with them. The widely publicised pictures of Aylan washed up on a Turkish shore have touched the hearts of many and there is now a much greater outpouring of goodwill in our country towards asylum seekers. I have worked in this area for 16 years and the change in public attitudes for the good really is a miracle. Before these heart breaking images appeared, we often battled with negativity and with the many myths surrounding those who come here for protection.
Aylan’s father, who also lost his wife and an older son in the same tragedy, prayed that their deaths would do some good. I believe his prayers have been answered. A baby found among the reeds by the river Nile changed the course of our ancestors’ history (Exodus 2:3); we continue to hope and pray that Aylan’s tragic death will be spoken of and remembered by generations yet to come.
As the time goes on, we are welcoming back those we helped in the early days. They come to say thank you and so often they tell us that we are their only family in the UK. Always they want to give a helping hand. They are full of gratitude. It is very humbling to be part of their journey; we have entertained many angels since we decided to welcome people here.
In the words of Pope Francis: “They are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters; hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war – seeking a better life, seeking happiness.”
by Sr Margaret Walsh ijs, 28 September 2015
St Chad’s Sanctuary is a charity that relies entirely on donations to continue its work. Visit their website at www.stchadssanctuary.com for more information
To visit Sr Margaret's blog at 'The Tablet' click here