By Emily Smith
‘The World on Our Doorstep’ refugee event held at St Margaret’s Church was an evening full of laughter, food and happiness. But most importantly it was an evening to reflect on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in the community.
Leeds Refugee Council, St Margaret’s Church and City of Sanctuary hosted the evening to raise awareness of refugee and asylum seekers in Leeds, and how they can be welcomed and supported in the community.
The evening began with tasty food cooked by Syrian refugees who used to be chefs in Syria, allowing the community to bond and make friends. Many people attended the evening, and there were smiles all round, as most went back for seconds, enjoying the vibrant flavours of the food.
Refugees and asylum seekers gave eye opening speeches about their experiences of seeking sanctuary in the UK.
Diana, a refugee originally from Bolivia, came to the UK 9 years ago for political reasons as her parents sent her to avoid getting in trouble with the government.
“As a student I used to help organise demonstrations and protests against the government, and when I first came here my idea was to come for a couple of months then go back.
However, after a couple of months I found out I was pregnant with my daughter who is now almost 9, and realised going back to my country wasn’t very safe not just for me, but also my daughter.”
Diana said that she then decided to claim asylum where she was put into a hostel in London, and found it difficult because she didn’t speak any English, therefore couldn’t arrange appointments with her GP, a midwife or any other service.
“After my daughter was born I moved to the lovely Leeds, I was put into a flat and that’s it. The first 2 years was full of isolation: no friends, no one to talk to, so I just tried to learn some English.
I had a horrible experience of being detained for a whole week when my daughter was 2 years old, and I couldn’t get any physical contact with her.”
She was given accommodation in Leeds which was difficult because it was a new area where she had no friends and no family. Diana then found Rose McCarthy, Refugee Councillor at City of Sanctuary, who introduced her to the befriender charity which helped her become the person she was before she went through the asylum process.
“Having a befriender didn’t solve my problems, but it solved a lot of my mental health and self-confidence.
After being with my befriender for a few months, I was asked to befriend myself and to become a volunteer which I know was the best decision I have ever made.
Volunteering opened up a lot of opportunities for me, because I was lucky enough to have a lot of friends and got to different organisations.
I realised I wasn’t alone in Leeds and found out how much a wonderful city Leeds is, it has become my home now and there is no chance that I would leave.”
Diana is studying a law access course and is hoping to study law at university next year.
Tina Brocklebank, a volunteer for City of Sanctuary, said the evening was a great success, and that it came on the back of a previous event where Horsforth staged a mock refugee camp and hosted talks about refuge and people seeking sanctuary.
“It was hugely successful in developing awareness and understanding and bringing together refugee communities with the Horsforth community.
The Refugee Council invited many of the Syrian refugee families to attend, and it was a wonderful, sharing, getting to know each other, and breaking down barriers event.”
Volunteering information was presented at the event to encourage more people to give up their time to support charities such as Refugee Education Training and Advisory Service (RETAS), which provides English to refugee and asylum seekers to help them integrate into society.
City of Sanctuary host monthly ‘Volunteer Information Sessions’ for anyone wanting to volunteer with refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds.
The next session is being held at Oak House, Leeds, on Monday 30th April at 6-7pm. More information can be found at: https://leeds.cityofsanctuary.org/2017/08/04/would-you-like-to-find-a-way-to-help-refugees-in-leeds