Huddling together at the arrivals gate at Gatwick airport, we were feeling a little nervous. Eighteen months of theological reflection, preparation, and planning had gone into this moment. Five of us were there – four members of our resettlement team and our interpreter. Clutching a banner with “welcome” emblazoned across in Arabic and three teddy bears we stared eagerly through the minuscule windows of the automatic doors at arrivals for our first glimpse of the people we affectionately call “our family”.
At this point they were still simply names on a piece of paper – five Syrian refugees, identified by the British government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as being particularly vulnerable in the refugee camps of Lebanon, and now being given sanctuary in the UK as part of the Home Office’s Syrian Resettlement Scheme.
Suddenly the doors swung open and they emerged into the bright lights of the arrival hall grappling with all their worldly possessions in a handful of suitcases. In that instant, we encountered them for the first time not as statistics but living, breathing human beings with names spoken out loud, handshakes, and nervous smiles.
In retrospect, it’s hard to put into words the emotions of the rest of the day. There were tears and laughter, joy and pain, as well as much comical cross-cultural hand gesturing. As we spilled out of the taxi and across the threshold into their new home, the mother of the family began to repeat over and over again “praise God, praise God” in her mother tongue. They were exactly the right words for the moment.
But let me rewind to 2 September 2015… this was the day that the tragic image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach found its way into newspapers and social media feeds across the world. In a stroke it transformed the public narrative on refugees. Four days later, my wife and I were installed as the new officers at our Salvation Army church and community centre in London.
In January 2016 we joined our friends from Citizens UK, Caritas, and For Refugees at the Home Office to talk with officials about the introduction of a British version of the Canadian “community sponsorship” scheme. During the following months we met with civil servants to co-design the programme and we felt great joy when Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced in July 2016 that full Community Sponsorship was now open to applications, with the Archbishop of Canterbury taking the first family into Lambeth Palace. Now was the time for us to put our words into action.
The responsibility for a group wanting to sponsor a family is quite heavy. It includes finding housing for two years, raising money to sustain them before benefits are received, organising English lessons, setting up bank accounts, registering with a doctor, dentist, and schools and identifying interpreters. All this requires is a dedicated team with a blend of skills. Our church community put this together step by step, identifying particular expertise within the congregation and connecting with others locally to plug any gaps. By late autumn we had built our team, received backing and helpful support from Merton Local Authority, put together a resettlement plan and submitted our application.
Early 2017 involved a round of training, cross-cultural orientation, and the excitement of the whole church community coming together to clean, garden, and furnish the home.
A month or so on from the family’s arrival and we are fully aware that it is still us who are being transformed. Whatever we have given we have received from “our family” tenfold. They exude such resilience, generosity, spirit and love.
In the words of one of the most inspirational women I’ve ever met, “praise God, praise God.”