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Standing Up for Refugees

There was standing-room-only at an information evening held at Hinsley Hall on Wednesday night by the Diocesan Refugee Support Group.  Well over 100 people from parishes all over the Diocese gave up an evening to brainstorm ideas of how we can respond at parish, deanery and diocesan level to address the refugee crisis by offering:  WELCOME, SANCTUARY, HOSPITALITY and CELEBRATION.

Holy Redeemer Parish (Huddersfield) was well-represented, with details of two initiatives, including a Cultural Evening – as was St Augustine’s (Harehills) where many cultures were encouraged to contribute to the Liturgy as a matter of policy, and so felt particularly welcomed at Mass.  Garforth’s response had also included culture and liturgy with Stations of the Cross for the Year of Mercy and an Eritrean Evening, as well as having worked on producing material to de-bunk myths.  Wakefield City of Sanctuary and Sts Peter & Paul Parish already host significant numbers of people in need (under proper safeguarding conditions) and representatives of Jeanne Jugan Parish in Leeds and the Good Shepherd Centre and St Anne’s in Keighley spoke of offering hot meals and other food parcels with the overriding aim of ‘making people feel at home’.  Parishioners in Otley and Ilkley were actively involved with some very creative efforts for both welcome and fundraising and spoke of the importance of working oecumenically – with Churches Together – and as part of a town and community response.

The evening had begun with Carol Hill of Catholic Care welcoming all with a synopsis of the present (and worsening) situation.  Catholic Care’s Gianna Project already provides pregnancy and parenting support – often to women who have survived the most traumatic circumstances – and there’s an ongoing need for the basics of food, baby equipment, clothes and toys.  Carol also gave a much-needed definition of what the often-misapplied terms ‘Asylum Seeker’, ‘Refugee’ and ‘Migrant’ actually mean, and described why and how the Bishop and Diocese of Leeds had responded with a collaboration between the Diocese and Catholic Care, Justice and Peace, St Monica’s Housing (which has temporarily housed 40 destitute women asylum seekers in 5 years), and the SVP.  Due credit was given during the evening to our neighbouring Diocese of Salford, which has led the way with a similar and very successful collaboration.

Albert Maher (SVP) gave further details of just how quickly help for a family with nothing can be turned round, making a bare shell of a house into a home.  He introduced two local people who came here from Syria – Sawsan and Fawaz.  They gave lively and witty presentations about how much people want to integrate into local life and benefit society with their hard work and many skills and talents.  Language barriers are surmountable by living and working within the local community – but certificates and qualifications need to be recognised and opportunities given.  Fawaz used the analogy of the character Jean Valjean in ‘Les Miserables’ being ‘given a break’ by a kindly Bishop: everyone just needs to be ‘given a break’ to prove themselves.

John Battle (Justice & Peace) gave an inspiring and energetic presentation and call-to-arms across the Diocese.  His experience as an MP helped him to respond to a very pertinent question from Fr John Carter, a retired priest who lives in Leeds’s St John Mary Vianney Parish, who suggested the  Bishops’ Conference reiterate and reissue their published stance against political extremism, and asked how to campaign for support in parliament.  (The best way to conduct this political lobbying is by forging a relationship with your parliamentary representative not during a regular ‘surgery’ but by making a short appointment at their leisure to bring the subject on to their agenda!)  John’s questioning also revealed that many parishioners want to do something practical, and this co-ordinated approach will give them the support and information they need as to which trusted local and national bodies will advise them where their efforts can best be concentrated.  This highlighted that we may be diverse and geographically spread-out – but we are One Diocese – and no parishes should feel themselves to be ‘on the margins’, even in the furthest reaches of the diocesan boundaries: from Uppermill to Ripon and from Barnoldswick to Howden.

Quote of the evening came from Sr Teresa Edwards of Holy Family Sisters in Allerton, Bradford, when describing a woman who had in one Christmas single-handedly given practical – and seasonal – help and support to 49 Syrians.  If ‘The Power of One’ can do so much, then how much more can the collaboration of many homes, schools, and parishes in our One Diocese achieve?

Whether advanced projects such as Horsforth’s ‘Schools of Sanctuary’ and ‘GP Practices of Sanctuary’ (the first ones in the country) to be rolled out further across our schools and parishes -or parishioners who had travelled from Uppermill, Mirfield, Brighouse and Wetherby and just raring to get projects underway – all went home enthused!  Bishop Marcus noted that developing Caritas as an agency for social action is going to be our legacy project from the Year of Mercy and that he was unsurprised at the evening’s large turnout as there is no shortage of compassion, kind-heartedness, creativity and the will to make things happen here in the Diocese of Leeds.

Issue 1 of the Diocesan Refugee Support Group’s newsletter is available here to read about what we can all do to fulfil Christ’s teaching that when we welcome the stranger as an Act of Mercy, we are welcoming Him.

The members of the Diocesan Refugee Support Group are more than happy to support parishes in their projects or in setting up a project and more than willing to visit parish groups to discuss opportunities and deliver the presentation.

For more information please contact Catholic Care by email to info@catholic-care.org.uk or by phone on (0113) 388 5400