Have you ever felt powerless to help refugees and asylum seekers in your country? Ever wondered whether there was some way to help humanise the process of resettlement? Our ambassador to England, Rensa Gaunt, recently interviewed Heather Luna, founder of East Lindsey Area of Sanctuary, a scheme which welcomes refugees and asylum seekers into the rural county of Lincolnshire. The network exists all over the UK and similar schemes exist across Europe, so if you’re feeling inspired, there are many ways you can get involved yourself.

How did you discover this scheme and get involved? How has the scheme developed while you have been involved?

After reading all the news stories about and seeing the deeply troubling photos of people seeking refuge (by making their way across the Mediterranean Sea and Europe) in August/September 2015, I felt compelled to do something. I saw on Facebook that a local man was collecting donations for the Calais refugee camp. I donated some clothes. Then I saw that a nearby mosque would be collecting food and other donations at a local supermarket. My six-year-old daughter and I went and helped [with the collection]. The following week we went to the mosque to help sort. Some members of the mosque were planning a trip out to Calais to deliver the donations.

I left feeling helpless, wishing I could do something more concrete, like go to Calais.

Then the brother of someone in my village happened to be visiting and mentioned he had friends that go to Calais and hooked me up with them on Facebook. I noticed the mothers homeschool (like we do) and I set up a phone call. I asked whether it would be appropriate to bring children to help out in Calais. She said she did it, and was planning another trip the following week and there was a spare room at their gite. So we went.

The experience was overwhelming. So many young men from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq. And families. And young women. Mud and a lack of toilets and makeshift running water — all of this just down the road from an upscale supermarket in France.

I left knowing that I wanted to do more. I was already lobbying our MP to allow more Syrians into the UK. And I started e-mailing various organisations, letting them know that we have a spare room for a person seeking refuge. Lincolnshire is not a dispersal area for people given refuge or seeking asylum.

But someone had a vision.

Colleen Molloy, the national development officer for City of Sanctuary, suggested I might offer a therapeutic break to a person seeking asylum and living in Leicester. They could go to the beach, the countryside, getting away from city life and the traumatic UK asylum system. I said yes immediately, but City of Sanctuary was overwhelmed with work from the increased publicity, and it wasn’t until December 2015 that I finally got my chance.

I had noticed Leicester City of Sanctuary was holding a Christmas Drop-In and I’d be nearby in Chesterfield. Colleen said it was fine for me to attend, speak to volunteers, and see if I could find an appropriate guest. So I arrived at the Catholic Church in Leicester to find a room full of festivities and people from all over the world. The volunteers introduced me to their work, and then I was left to meet people.

I approached a table with young men and befriended an 18-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He could barely speak English, and I could only count to 10 in French (one of his languages). We got along just fine, and another person translated as I invited him to our house in Lincolnshire to practice English and go to the beach. He said yes!

We bought his National Express ticket and, on a dark night in January 2016, he bravely left Leicester and went deep into Lincolnshire, not knowing what to expect. My husband, daughter, and I picked him up and brought him another 20 minutes to our quiet and dark village. We used Google Translate and my daughter started playing board games with him right away. He appreciated the free Wi-Fi and three home-cooked meals a day, along with the socialising, the English, and the visit to the beach.

He returned to visit us for one week each month for 10 months. He now has college classes every day and friends, and we rarely see him. We miss him so much but are so pleased that he is settled (as much as he can be, given that he still has yet to have his interview for asylum with the Home Office).

Other people heard about what I was doing and wanted to join in. That March (2016), I had organised a vigil along with Louth Churches Together to welcome Syrians granted refuge into Lincolnshire, lobbying Lincolnshire County Council. I founded East Lindsey Area of Sanctuary (ELAoS) to facilitate the publicity and organisation of the vigil and pledges made.

ELAoS became the natural vehicle with which to deliver a formal Sanctuary Breaks scheme. I developed application forms for potential hosts and referral forms for potential guests, using materials from hosting schemes for destitute people seeking asylum. I visited a charity supporting people given and seeking asylum in Leeds and began a partnership for referrals, in addition to referrals coming from Leicester.

My (volunteer) job as the Sanctuary Breaks Coordinator is to facilitate the matching between hosts and guests, to publicise the scheme, vet and train hosts, and further develop the scheme.

Has the public responded positively to your work?

One time, our local newspaper, the Louth Leader, publicised our work without our permission. It was just after the Brexit referendum and I did not want my email address publicised. But it brought zero hate mail and two wonderful hosts. The only hate communication I have received is via Facebook, in a message to my private account, just after the March 2016 vigil. Also, some villagers where I live were upset that the local newspapers had implied that a fundraiser for our scheme was being hosted by the village itself, not just being held in the hired village hall. We moved the event to a private household in Louth.

How much of an impact do you feel this scheme is making? What do people get out of their involvement?

For our guests (23 in total, 5 of whom came as individual guests and the rest as families), this is the first time they have been inside an English person’s home, the first time they have tried English food. They are treated like proper guests and enjoy the English immersion. The young people participating are very excited to have a place to go during school holidays because, otherwise, they feel left out when their peers are going away and they are not able to also go away.

The scheme has 14 hosts on the books, 10 of whom have begun hosting. All but one of these hosts have continued to host, inviting the same guests back again. Hosts find it life-changing to welcome people into their homes and to develop a better understanding of the UK government’s treatment of people seeking asylum. The hosts enjoy meeting other hosts and supporters and getting involved in larger campaigns around asylum.

How do you find people who are willing to host individuals or help out? Does the rural location of this branch make a difference compared to city projects?

We generally find hosts through word of mouth. Supporters or hosts tell friends who they think will be open to the idea and make great hosts. In terms of the rural location: We find that the staff and volunteers in the city projects are overworked and under-resourced. Whereas here, in rural Lincolnshire, we have people with time and money to support this constituency. Our funding and time remove a huge burden from the shoulders of the staff and volunteers at the referring agencies.

How can other people get involved and contribute to projects like these?

Find out who are your local supporters of people seeking refuge and asylum. There may be a hosting scheme, befriending, language conversation cafés, donating and fundraising opportunities. If you are looking to be a bit innovative/creative, contact me at heather@eastlindsey.cityofsanctuary.org, and we can bat some ideas around no matter where you are.

Rensa Gaunt is a student of modern languages and cultures at the University of Cambridge, and is EST Ambassador to England. You can contact her at england.uk.est@gmail.com.

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