Southend Welcoming Refugees is a multi-agency, town wide initiative involving all sorts of agencies, faith groups and individuals and is a recent response to the worldwide refugee crisis and the recent announcement by the UK government to take in 10,000 displaced and often desperate and distressed persons from Syria and other trouble spots, the number of which is reckoned to be in the region of several million, as well as a response by Southend Council offering to take in 10 of these. Last night its first public event was held (at Crowstone United Reformed Church) under the auspices of CAST (Communities and Asylum Seekers Together).
It was a fantastic event that bodes well for the future given that it is hoped that we as a town will be able to make a serious response to the greatest humanitarian refugee crisis since the Second World War. The event was attended by 137 persons, which came as a pleasant surprise to many including one speaker who thought she would be turning up to speak in a back room with a handful of people. Even though I know more than many as to what is going on, and what sort of responses are being made and intended, having taken an interest in and written about many of the happenings and ensuing issues around sanctuary seekers (I also have a minor involvement in the organizing of the event) I still learned a lot.
There were several speakers who each had their particular perspective and involvement to share, which were remarkably diverse yet complementary. I chided myself for not taking a notebook given a lot of important stuff was shared but am confident that in the weeks to come a lot of what was said and agreed will come out into the public domain and, more importantly, it will result in action that will benefit those who have been affected by the crisis. I will resist going through all what each speaker said for fear of missing something important but these ranged from CAST itself, local politicians, groups already involved in some of the responses to the 5000 or so sanctuary seekers camped in Calais (where the conditions can well be described as harrowing), church groups that are responding already and prepared to respond further, as well as representatives from the local synagogue and mosque, campaign groups like Hope not Hate, relief agencies like Christian Aid and the Red Cross and voluntary organisations like Citizens Advice and SAVS. One of the many positives of the evening was the diversity to be found among those who were speaking and attending, yet they were united in their desire to do something good for these folk.
At the end people were invited to indicate the support they were prepared to give e.g. hosting and befriending those who eventually come to the UK, raising awareness and in various other practical ways, and many did respond. Also, a straw poll was taken as to how many sanctuary seekers those attending thought should be accepted in Southend, and the majority felt 100 was an appropriate figure. Things have moved on a lot in the last two months regarding government, media and public response to the refugee crisis, from something that was seen as unfortunate but not our problem (e.g. charity begins at home) to it now being our problem and we need to respond. Given the desperate life and death situations we are faced with, I am pleased a response is being formulated and I hope and expect there to be a lot of coming together and practical action in the next few months. My abiding memory is from the first and last speakers, Wisdom and Washington, members of CAST and friends of mine. Both are Zimbabwean who came to the UK as asylum seekers and now wish to help others in similar circumstances. Not only did they sow the seed that “every little helps” but also stressed the importance of our being a welcoming community.