Journey to citizenship

17 June 2024

To mark Refugee Week, Steph Cooper, Senior Project Worker at Refugee Action York, shares this story of a Syrian family and their path to UK citizenship.

A few week's ago I had the huge privilege of attending my friends’ citizenship ceremony. It was such an honour to be invited to join them on this special day, and it brought tears to my eyes when they went up to receive their certificates from the Deputy-Lord-Lieutenant of West Yorkshire, herself the daughter of immigrants.

I first met this Syrian family back in 2018, when they moved to our village on the refugee resettlement scheme and since then my husband and I have become good friends with them, and we’ve laughed, cried, and shared food together many times, supporting each other through so many different things, making cultural and language mistakes, but learning from this and thus forging an even stronger friendship.

Journey to citizenship

Then, in January 2020, I signed on the dotted line to take voluntary redundancy in the June from my role as Regional Coordinator at Christian Aid, a role that I’d had for 14 and a ½ years, and which I loved. I could have stayed on but felt that maybe there was something new on the horizon for me. However, as we all know, the Covid lockdown began in March 2020 and when I finally finished at Christian Aid it was the height of lockdown and we were only able to go out once a day for exercise, and all my big plans were put on hold!

Amazingly, the following day I learned that a hotel a few miles from our house had been contracted to provide accommodation for single male asylum seekers, and so I contacted the local refugee charity to see if they needed any volunteers, and that was how the next week I found myself nervously meeting up with the CEO of the charity in the hotel car park, ready to find out what was needed. From that day on, a small group of us went into the hotel weekly to distribute clothing, toiletries, and other small items to the men, and to chat with them as best we could. On the first day, one young man from Yemen told me that he didn’t need clothes, he needed books to learn English so that he could begin to rebuild his life here. The following week I took in some books and from then on whenever I visited the hotel we’d chat about what he’d been reading and I’d help him with vocabulary and grammar. I also signed up for Arabic lessons with the University of York, and this man held video calls with me to help me practice what I’d learned each week.

Little did I know on that day in 2020 that four years on my husband and I would have become adopted parents and grandparents to this man, his wife and three children (who were finally allowed to join him in the UK in May 2022) and that we would be celebrating Eid with them in their home, and that we would have friends from all around the world.

And as we got to know so many brave people, people who had fled war zones, spoken out against repressive regimes, been trafficked, been persecuted because of their faith/sexuality/ethnicity, etc we also learned about resilience, hope, generosity, and realised that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’.

I also learned more about the government’s policies regarding refugees and asylum seekers and realised how difficult it was for people seeking sanctuary to be able to meet even their most basic needs because of these policies, and I learned how much the media failed to portray the reality of the situation, peddling stories of fear rather than sharing stories of positivity and hope (of which I came across so many).

As I got more and more involved in volunteering at the hotel, I would put out requests to my friends and to our church and circuit members for various items (suitcases for when people got moved on, items of clothing, books…) and if we knew we’d be short of volunteers I’d also ask people to come and help, and so gradually there were quite a few Methodists getting involved in the volunteering. We couldn’t invite people to church or our homes at that point because lockdown was still in full swing, but sometimes men would join services online, and others would meet up 1:1 online for English conversation. And once people were able to meet in small groups, several of the men came along to the local running club with Rob and I and were made very welcome.

After the hotel contract ended in June 2021, I kept in touch with some of the men, sharing their highs and lows until they received their right to remain and were able to start moving forward, accessing training and finding employment. I had also become a trustee of Refugee Action York and was working for another Christian development organisation. However, my experience of volunteering with asylum seekers had changed me and I soon began to feel unsettled in my new role, eventually giving in my notice in January 2022, and taking a short-term contract to support resettled refugees in York. Sadly, Russia invaded Ukraine shortly after I started this role and soon we found quite a lot of Ukrainians accessing our weekly drop in coffee and conversation sessions and my hours increased. We realised that we needed additional volunteers to support the growing number of people and again several members of the church and circuit responded to our requests.

Then, in December 2022, we learned that a family asylum hotel was to be opened nearby, and I was seconded to take the lead in our support to the residents. Not being able to hold sessions in the hotel itself, we once again turned to the churches, who not only provided rooms for us to hold our sessions in, but also put out requests to their congregations for donations of toiletries, spices, clothes, baby equipment, etc, etc. We also needed volunteers to befriend the residents, support them with language learning, and helping them to feel welcome in their new area. I was invited to share at a circuit meeting and following that, more people came forward to volunteer.

And so it is that our secular organisation has a large proportion of Methodist volunteers, drawn in by the passion and commitment of their fellow church members.

I’m not going to lie – my new role has been a roller coaster ride. There have been some very dark and difficult times as the government’s policies have got even tougher, and as people who have already suffered so much are forced to struggle here too, but there have also been some amazing times – I’ve received so much love, friendship and generosity from people with very little materially, and I’ve been humbled, inspired and challenged by their resilience. I’ve also had lots of spiritual conversations – be that Christian or otherwise, and I’ve learned to respect the views of other faiths and to look for the similarities rather than the differences, seeking to unite rather than divide.

When I met my Syrian friends in 2018, and when I signed on the dotted line at Christian Aid back in January 2020, I had no idea what was to come, and I doubt I’d have believed you if you’d told me what I’d be doing in 2024 (in fact I’d have been scared stiff). But looking back it seems that all the things that have happened over the last 6 years have led to this place, and it definitely feels the right place for me to be at this moment in time.

And so I thank God for the privilege of attending a citizenship ceremony for my friends, for the video call from my Yemeni ‘granddaughter’ telling her ‘jidat alanjilizia’ (English Grandma) about her day at school, for the delicious Pakistani biriyani, the Palestinian falafels, for the numerous cards and messages from hotel residents who have moved on… and for the love and support from so many local people, helping to make these new arrivals welcome whilst they are in York. And I hope and pray that many more people will have the opportunity to experience these encounters with individuals and that myths will be dispelled, tolerance and acceptance will be forged, and our city will be all the better for it.