‘This place should be called Heaven…’ Community Sponsorship

14 June 2023

The Revd David Butterworth is interfaith chaplain with the NEC, Birmingham. In this blog post he shares the story of the Community Sponsorship programme and its life-changing impact on the refugees who have been welcomed to Birmingham through it. 

Refugee Week will, for many, bring to mind the picture of a little boy’s lifeless body, lifted from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. The Syrian family of Alan Kurdi were in a fake lifeboat along with others seeking sanctuary and a new life when the tragedy happened.

Since then we have seen many atrocities around the globe where ordinary people have become refugees fleeing persecution, rape, extreme violence and war. Each of them, heartbreakingly seeking sanctuary outside of their home country.

While some of us are traumatised by the atrocities, we also hear powerful, pleading biblical words ringing in our ears. ‘Let My people go’ (Exodus 5:1) But it doesn’t easily translate into ‘open the door of sanctuary’.  In this blog, I ask who will say ‘come here, we can help’. I know that together we can offer new life and life in all its fullness.

As with most things - working collaboratively with others can open doors and hearts hitherto never considered. The Community Sponsorship initiative offers you and the communities around you the opportunity to provide sanctuary to a family fleeing persecution. Responsive support does not need to be a burden on your own shoulders if a Community Sponsorship group is formed ‘in the community’.

In the Birmingham District we formed such a community to receive a family from Syria through the emerging Community Sponsorship programme. A similar scheme had been running for many years in Canada but there was no such platform in the UK. However, with a bold yet collaborative approach, the Methodist Church and CitizensUK had approached the Home Office.

We visited the Home Office many times and helped kick-start the Community Sponsorship program in the UK. We spoke in the House of Lords and, amazingly, a VIP cohort from Canada visited us in Birmingham as we gathered with many folks from every faith position – especially from local Mosques. Slowly a model of UK based Community Sponsorship started to form. We gathered funding from generous members via the Birmingham District and both vocal and financial support from across the Connexion along with a gift from the National Zakat Foundation. We then sought, and happily received, the agreement from Birmingham City Council for educational and health provision.

The label on the ‘program tin’, so to speak, is Community Sponsorship. Being in the West Midlands region with a rich diversity of ethnicity and faiths, we prayed about starting a wider community to wrap itself around our vision and hopefully, a Syrian family.

A team started to form with supporters from Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, the National Zakat Foundation, Birmingham Circuit, Birmingham City Council, CitizensUKBham, and a range of volunteers including ‘Kinder Transport’ elders.

We also gladly received important help from the recently arrived 550 Syrian Refugees. It was powerful and moving. We had heard those words ‘let my people go’ and responded with arms of embrace. We received a family of four including two children. The little boy of six years of age was the only one with a smattering of English. As we left the airport in a borrowed minibus he said, “This place should be called Heaven.”

As the model became more of a reality we were called to speak in mosques, libraries, community groups, universities, and many other spaces. Other faith groups caught the vision and as an example, our friends at Mosely Clifton Road Mosque received a family.

Louai was one of the first Syrian Refugees to enter the UK after the Birmingham District and others had challenged and encouraged Birmingham City Council to receive a tranche of 50 refugees. Louai had been a veterinary surgeon in Syria. He was one of the few who could speak English. He became an enormous help in our discussions with Birmingham City Council and our program to develop the embryonic Community Sponsorship initiative.

When we planned to collect the arriving Community Sponsorship family from Birmingham Airport, Louai volunteered to drive the mini-bus which we borrowed from Longbridge Methodists. Louai continued the journey in the weeks ahead by offering us guidance from a Syrian perspective for those arriving in the UK with nothing.

Louai joined in wider civic engagements, including an address at the Birmingham City Holocaust Memorial event. When I was invited to light the first Peace candle I also invited Louai and the son of Community Sponsorship family to be the ones gathering around and lighting the Peace candles. It was very moving for the interfaith congregation.

It is intriguing that Louai volunteered to drive our mini bus years ago and he is now running his own company with five mini busses and drivers all contributing to the UK economy and community.

Some years on and we are now supporting another family, with Solihull Methodists valiantly raising £10,000 Community Sponsorship finance via several mission focussed church gatherings. Collaboratively we sought other trusted partners within a wider interfaith community group. And so, at ‘arm’s length’ we agreed that the local welcome in the Black Country would be in Bearwood Community Centre with local Methodist members involved in the wider team. A refugee family with four children hasnow  been received from Sudan - they are so happy.

Thinking you could possibly do this…? The encouraging response I offer is, ‘yes, you can’.

To hear a little child arriving at a UK airport, in their hour of greatest need saying, ‘I love you’ is a life-changer for everyone.