by Alex Taylor
I was recently asked to attend a discussion evening in Manchester about the local response to the refugee crisis. It was an event organised by the Student Christian Movement, and featured a guest speaker who worked for a local charity that helped refugees and asylum speakers to start new lives in the UK. The organisation’s name was ‘The Boaz Trust’, named after the biblical figure who welcomed Ruth, a foreigner, into his land and showed her kindness. The Trust takes inspiration from the recurring themes throughout the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament that call people to welcome the stranger and the refugee with the spirit of compassion. They seek to help people of all faiths and none who find themselves alone in a strange new country, usually with no money, no material possessions and no life to which they can return. The UK’s asylum process is a long and complex procedure, and it often takes years for asylum seekers to be granted refugee status and the vital safety and security that accompanies it. The Boaz Trust works to empower these people and to challenge the whole asylum process to act with greater humanity and compassion.
The response to asylum seekers and refugees had been strongly at the forefront of our national, and international, mind in the last two years. The Boaz Trust is just one of many humanitarian organisations coping with the huge global displacement of people due to war and political unrest. This includes not only those fleeing from Syria, but also refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and many other parts of the world. It is a crisis that has divided the opinions of whole nations, but has also worked to bring people together. In the UK, it has united Christian and atheist, Muslim and Jew, in a joint effort to open our borders and our lives to those who seek sanctuary. Religious leaders from all different traditions have called for a more inclusive approach to asylum seekers and refugees. Their examples have inspired many of their followers to be among the most active in offering aid of any kind.
The talk from the Boaz Trust encouraged me to reflect upon the important role that faith communities can play in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. I will just briefly focus on three principle ways in which faith communities can positively engage with the process in the UK.
Firstly, faith communities are almost uniquely placed to offer practical support to asylum seekers and refugees. Churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras and other places of worship can be found in virtually every human settlement, from small country villages to bustling inner cities. The communities they draw together can be at the forefront of a network that offers immediate support to those who have fled to the UK. Many refugees have no possessions or prospects, and may struggle even to find food and shelter. Faith communities can help by running foodbanks and homeless hostels, donating clothes and simply befriending people who have no contacts and often do not speak English at all. This is absolutely not to say that religious groups are the only ones who are helping refugees – or that they are any better at it than others – but the value of a gathered community is one of the greatest attributes of traditional religions, and this communal effort can be of paramount importance in helping asylum seekers and refugees on an immediate local level.
Secondly, faith communities can engage with people on a communal or social level. Many refugees come from societies where religion plays a very significant role. Places and communities of worship will often seem the natural place to seek aid, friendship and support. Faith groups can offer not just practical aid but also long-term inclusion, both to asylum seekers and to those who have already been granted refugee status. Many of these people have left their whole lives behind, including their friends and families and everyone they hold dear, and a faith community seems the most obvious place to seek friendship and a sense of belonging. Reports such as those from St Mark’s Church in Stoke-on-Trent suggest that places of worship have been vital in helping refugees to build a new life in the UK.1 In a society that all too often is characterised by a type of neo-liberal individualism – big on personal freedom but lacking in collective responsibility and relationships – faith groups are among those who offer a sense of real fellowship. This does not mean ‘converting’ people but being there for them in their sorrow, their joy and their human need. This caring communal identity is one of the great values that religious groups can offer to refugees and asylum seekers.
Finally, it is also important to point out that faith communities can have a huge impact on national and international political attitudes. By speaking out in support of a more compassionate response to the arrival of refugees, church leaders have encouraged the government to see their approach as a humanitarian plight rather than a political or economic issue.2 Faith communities at their best can gather together to speak as one voice, often representing a large array of people from many different races, faiths, sexual orientations and socio-economic statuses. This call for peace and justice is an important part of all the great religious traditions, and religious communities can have a hugely positive impact in bringing this about through advocating for acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers on a national political scale.
The talk from the Boaz Trust encouraged me to see the good and fruitful things that faith communities – and many others – can do to welcome refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the UK. Faith groups are almost uniquely placed to engage with new arrivals, on a practical, a social and a political level. By working with each other, and with all people of good will, they can ensure that those who are seeking sanctuary in this land are welcomed as friends and enabled to build a new life.
For more information on the Boaz Trust and the valuable work they do, please visit: http://www.boaztrust.org.uk/.
For more information on the Student Christian Movement, please visit: http://www.movement.org.uk/.
1 Nazia Parveen, “This is what I’m meant to be doing’: the vicar welcoming Muslims to church,” The Guardian, 18 July 2016. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/18/this-is-what-im-meant-to-be-doing-the-vicar-welcoming-muslims-to-church.
2 BBC News, “Rowan Williams: UK ‘needs to do more for refugees’, says former archbishop,” BBC, 19th June 2016. Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36568862.
“Somali Refugee Boat” by PH1 Robert R. McRill is in the Public Domain