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Church gives Syrian family a home from home

Nick Coke tells Claire Brine why his Salvation Army congregation is supporting refugees

We want to give them the best start possible

THE world watched in horror in 2015 as television news bulletins showed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and heading for the safer shores of Europe. As scenes of desperation and devastation unfolded, Major Nick Coke of The Salvation Army’s Raynes Park church felt compelled to ‘do something’.

‘A few times I went to visit the refugee camp in Calais to find out what was happening, and it left me feeling convicted that the UK needed to be doing more to help,’ he says. ‘At the time, the national attitude was that we didn’t want to let refugees into Britain. I found that shocking. We live in a country that has resources to share, so why weren’t we doing anything to help these people who were stuck in such an awful situation? Everyone was talking about the refugee crisis, but I thought the crisis was more about our nation’s lack of ability to welcome people.’

In September 2015, the national mood shifted when the media published a photograph of a little boy named as Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. The three-year-old’s body was found washed up on a beach in Turkey after his family’s crossing to Kos went drastically wrong. Instantly, the picture went global.

‘It was a game changer,’ Nick says. ‘But it frustrated me that it took such a heartbreaking image to galvanise people into action. We had been looking at pictures of refugees all summer long and it hadn’t seemed to make much difference.

‘The picture of Aylan Kurdi changed attitudes in Britain overnight. Many people went from making half-hearted efforts for refugees to saying: “We have to do more.”’

The Sunday after the picture made headlines, Nick was preaching at The Salvation Army in Raynes Park, southwest London. He reflected on the refugee crisis with his congregation, many of whom also wanted to act.

‘I had heard from other organisations about the possibility of taking part in a community sponsorship scheme, in which community and faith groups could apply to sponsor a refugee family through their resettlement process. It was a scheme that Canada had pioneered in the 1970s, and the UK government was looking into running it for refugees coming here. I was interested to know more, and so were people at church.’

In January 2016, Nick, representing The Salvation Army, travelled to the Home Office with other groups, including Citizens UK, to discuss with officials the implementation of the scheme in Britain. In July, the community sponsorship scheme was opened for applications, with the Archbishop of Canterbury taking the first refugee family into Lambeth Palace.

‘As a church, we talked about whether or not we ought to apply for a family – but, of course, we knew we had to,’ Nick says. ‘It wasn’t about doing something for refugees, but doing something with them. We wanted to be personally involved in the lives of a family. Building face-to-face relationships was important.’

Over the next months, Nick and his congregation rolled up their sleeves to make preparations to welcome a Syrian family into their church community. It was a huge effort.

‘The responsibility for a group wanting to sponsor a family is heavy,’ Nick explains. ‘It includes finding housing for two years, raising money to sustain the family before government benefits are received, organising English lessons, setting up bank accounts, registering with doctors and schools and finding interpreters. Thankfully we had a team of dedicated people wanting to get involved.’

By February 2017, the preparations were complete. Nick and a handful of others, including an interpreter, travelled to Gatwick airport to meet and greet their sponsored family: parents Ghassan and Manal and their three children.

‘I was really nervous,’ Nick confesses. ‘We hadn’t spoken to the family before, and I wondered: “What if they don’t like us? It could happen.” We had sent them a document with information about ourselves, translated into Arabic, but that was it.

‘Waiting at arrivals, we held balloons and teddy bears for the children and had taken a banner saying “Welcome” in Arabic, which one of the young people at our church had made with a school friend. We wanted the family to know that we were glad to see them.

‘When they came through the door into the arrivals hall and made their way over to us, we had an instant connection. Everything felt right, despite the fact that we couldn’t speak the same language. Before we had even left the airport, Manal – the mum – asked the translator to say to us: “Thank you so much for the way you have welcomed us. This is the best we have been greeted in the last six years.” Our eyes filled with tears.’

When the family stepped into their new home, Manal walked around the rooms, saying, ‘Praise God, praise God’ in Arabic. Nick says it was a beautiful moment.

‘We were all feeling really vulnerable,’ he explains. ‘We were vulnerable because we didn’t know what was going to happen. And the family felt vulnerable because they had put themselves in our hands. But I believe that in such times of vulnerability, God steps in. He was working in our interaction.’

Sixteen months later, Ghassan, Manal and their children are settling well into their new community. Ghassan is working in two jobs, he and Manal are taking English lessons, the children are enjoying school and nursery, and the elder daughter is hoping to undergo an operation this summer for a longstanding medical condition. Nick says that, while he and his congregation continue to support the family, the relationship has ‘moved to the friendship level’.

He explains: ‘Ghassan often says to me: “Don’t come over to see me to talk business, but come over for a cup of tea!” The family enjoy spending time with people from our church, and they’ve built good relationships together. Such relationships are a blessing.

‘The challenges we face tend to relate to cultural differences – things that we can’t understand in the UK. For example, one day I might go to visit the family and find that they are feeling sad because they have received bad news from home, where a relative or friend has been killed in a bomb attack. They are continuing to live with the horrors of the war – and though we can try to understand what they are going through, we can’t really. All we can do is offer our support.’

In the final months of the two-year community sponsorship contract, Nick, his congregation and the family are beginning to discuss plans for the future. The scheme is about helping vulnerable families to rebuild their lives so that ultimately they can find independence.

‘Community sponsorship is about that first stage,’ Nick says. ‘The point is to take people out of a terrible situation and give them a new start. But it’s not the job of the sponsoring group to sort out the family’s problems for life. If this family comes to depend on us for everything, then we have failed. We want to help them, give them the best start possible, then say: “Over to you now. You can do it.” And they know they can, because that’s what they did back home.’

Across the UK, there are more than 25 faith and community groups sponsoring refugee families. As refugee co-ordinator for The Salvation Army in the UK, Nick hopes the figure will continue to rise.

‘I’ve had interest from about 15 Salvation Army churches who want to look into sponsoring a family, so the scheme is definitely growing,’ he says. ‘I’ve also been helping other groups through the process, working with people from churches, synagogues and mosques, so it has been great for developing interfaith relationships as well.

‘While community sponsorship is just a small part of the resettlement effort for the UK, it has a lot of power. I’ve discovered that it’s not just about helping a refugee family, but also about creating strong relationships – and this can have a positive ripple effect on the whole community.’

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