The term ‘asylum seeker’ was not common until four years ago, but now it is used with disdain or even hatred – often incited by misrepresentation from politicians and the Press.
Whatever your reaction, I want to tell you about some we have met during the last four years, and how our church is trying to help them. We first became aware of the influx of asylum seekers when two men arrived in our congregation in February 2000.
One had left his wife and children in Sri Lanka and the other, aged 19, had seen his family home destroyed. During the following weeks we heard their sad stories. The church accepted them, loved them and they kept coming!
Cannon Park Congregational Church, Middlesbrough, is in an urban area with 5,000 homes within close proximity. The area’s many problems include unemployment, drug addiction and prostitution. A large sign saying ‘JESUS SAVES’ speaks clearly to passers-by of every nationality.
Most asylum seekers are hard-working people who simply want to be accepted, find work and get on with their lives. In a declining area, people have pointed out the improvements in streets where asylum seekers are housed.
Since 2000 we have had 78 asylum seekers with us, most from Iran or the African countries surrounding the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many have moved (or been moved) on, while others now worship with African churches, which are springing up wherever there are large groups of Africans in the UK.
Nevertheless, we are still in contact with 58 around the country, and 26 worship with us regularly.
For a brief description of these people’s lives, I would select the word ‘struggle’. They had a struggle to leave their home country – some paid huge sums to get here, selling businesses or pooling family finances. Some were smuggled in on lorries, or brought in by couriers who then vanished with their passports.
They left home because of the struggle they experienced there. Some fled Iran to escape religious persecution and torture. Many Africans fled political oppression, often involving themselves or loved ones being subject to torture, rape and death-threats.
Arriving in the UK their struggles do not cease. Already traumatised and disorientated, they are held in reception camps where they have to cope with unsympathetic solicitors; with translators who may belong to the ethnic group they are fleeing from and misrepresent what they say; and with the arbitrary and life-changing decisions of immigration officers.
There are also language and cultural barriers – most of our contacts are Farsi or French speaking. They are often moved around the country and unable to make friends or put down spiritual roots. Neither do these struggles end swiftly – we have some friends who have been with us for over three years without a final outcome.
What most of them want to do is to rebuild their lives. We have former teachers, midwives, businessmen, students and accountants, but the more recent arrivals are not allowed to work. They suffer health problems, depression, and concern about families left behind.
Many never wanted to leave their country and would return if peace and freedom were established there. Almost invariably asylum seekers belonged to close-knit, supportive communities at home.
Suddenly they find themselves in an environment where prostitution and drug abuse is normal. Some are placed in temporary accommodation with drug-users, alcoholics and other homeless people.
Many long to establish a new family, and some have married or live with English girls. These people have lost the structure of home communities and the devil makes work for idle hands.
One said to us, ‘In my own country I would never be involved with the things I am involved with here. Middlesbrough is a very evil place’. They also experience rejection. A former OMF missionary said, ‘If we are visitors to another country we are welcomed as guests, but here we view outsiders as foreigners in our country’. Local people often regard them as suitable targets for racial harassment, abuse and theft.
For believers there is also the spiritual shock of finding what the UK is really like. They imagined it was spiritually strong – after all, where did the missionaries come from? The reality of small churches in a sea of ungodliness comes as a terrible shock.
How do we respond as a church to these many and varying needs? This is no fairy story and there have been many disappointments. People we have loved and tried to help have turned their backs on us. Others backslide or develop moral problems. Some have chosen to join ‘Black churches’ rather than integrate with us.
The church leaders felt from the beginning that we must welcome and support all who come – first by ensuring they can benefit from the ministry. An outline of the sermon is translated into French and there was a time when we were providing translations into French, Portuguese and Farsi.
We have had services in Farsi on a monthly basis and continue to hold French services on a weekly basis. There is also simultaneous translation into French during the morning service. We have a lending library of French books and access to Farsi literature.
We have opened our homes for hospitality; Sunday lunchtime and Christmas time are important. We have taken people on holiday, and family outings often include them. We have also provided birthday cards and cake, and they join in our celebrations.
It is all part of the church being a family. We are simply doing what we would want others to do for our families if the roles were reversed – if, for example, your own 19-year-old daughter was a stranger on another continent.
We have wept with those who weep and rejoiced with those who rejoice. We have seen families reunited. We have attended and given evidence at hearings, especially for the Iranians claiming asylum on religious grounds.
This has also meant giving time to provide statements for solicitors. While there is a basic loan for those setting up new homes, we have helped in practical ways. We have also provided warm, winter clothing – winter is a trial to the Africans, who also find the long hours of darkness very depressing. On occasions we have provided financially for the medical needs of families in Africa.
The language problem is immense – Margaret’s initial conversations were with the aid of English-French and English-Portuguese dictionaries. Subsequently we held conversation classes on Friday afternoons in the church hall, run by a teacher supplied by the Local Authority.
For 18 months we were helped in the work amongst the French speakers by Anatole Lordon, who has now gone to minister in the Cameroon Republic with UFM.
What have we had to learn as a fellowship? It is easy but wrong to assume that all Africans are alike. We long to see a fully integrated church but that is something we are striving for rather than achieving.
Most helpful has been the Bring-and-Share Lunch -held once a month after the morning service. Time spent together brings opportunity to share and develop relationships. In the long-term the Sunday school could be deeply influential in furthering integration, for the children of asylum seekers often speak excellent English while their parents are still struggling.
These are people who have a lot to teach us about families and community. They love children and have great respect for age and authority. To visit our home and see Margaret’s elderly mother is a treat and an honour.
The minister and his wife – ‘Pastor’ and ‘Ma Ma’ – are key figures to them. Sharing is very important and it is regarded as shameful to have plenty while your brother is in need. Some of their values are more biblical than our Western assumptions about family and church life.
What a joy it is when sad, dejected lonely faces smile again. This may be through a visit, a trip out into the countryside, or being able to help with a holiday. What a privilege when they say they now realise that others care about them – in a way they thought only their own family could.
They need to be loved, accepted and cared for. Above all, they need to belong.