‘Go and do likewise’: Why Churches Should Sponsor Refugee Families

by Samuel Yung

The crisis
Six years of brutal civil war in Syria, coupled with atrocities committed by ISIS across the Middle East and beyond, have created one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. Almost 500,000 Syrian people have died [1], 6.3 million are internally displaced, and some 11 million – nearly half the population – have fled their homes, with almost 5 million are in vast camps in neighbouring countries. [2]

These broken people are not economic migrants chasing a better future. I know that many refugees pray daily for a chance to return to their former homes, if they are still intact when the war ends. Fleeing from war and imminent destruction, their only choice was to risk their lives for safety and survival. Many left with only the clothes on their back and what they could carry. They face disease and malnutrition. Far too many Syrian children are deprived of education, a problem that could hinder them for life.

The mandate
Throughout the Old Testament, from Abraham to Ruth, God’s people were sojourners and foreigners, migrating from one place to another in search of peace and security. God commanded them to be kind and hospitable to the aliens in their land: ‘You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt’. [3] In the New Testament, we are introduced to a young Jesus Christ who knew what it was like to be displaced. Shortly after his birth, Jesus and his family fled to a foreign land, and survived a mass infanticide ordered by the dictator King Herod. But they lived as refugees. They lost their homes, connections with family and friends. They depended on the hospitality of strangers in a foreign land. During his ministry as an adult Jesus taught that the sheep – the true believers – are to be distinguished from the goats – the unregenerate – based on the way they treat the least of their brothers and sisters, which included a clear mandate to invite the stranger in. [4]

The response
In January 2014, the UK Government introduced the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme (VPRP) in order to provide a safe route for Syrian refugees to come to the UK. Following a sharp shift in public opinion prompted by images of the three-year old Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, David Cameron announced a significant extension of VPRP in September 2015, most notably by committing to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK by 2020. To date, the Government is still committed to meeting this target. Latest report show that 5,706 Syrians were resettled in the UK since VPRP started in 2014. [5]

Under this VPRP, the state and its ability to provide take centre stage, with central government bearing the brunt of the resettlement cost, and providing funds to local authorities, which provide support services to refugees directly. The scope and efficacy of this state-led approach are bound to be limited at a time when governments and local authorities are having to make difficult decisions about how money is spent. In addition, central government and local authorities do not always work well together, as demonstrated in the row over who is responsible for the lack of child refugees entering the UK under the so-called Dubs Amendment in February. [6] Civil society is asked to offer help where it can, but so far it has mostly been limited to volunteering and donation of goods.

The inspiration
For nearly four decades, Canadians have been taking a different, more civil society-led approach to refugee resettlement. Since 1978, Canada’s Private Sponsorship has allowed countless private citizens and local organisations to group their resource and manpower together and be responsible for the resettlement of a newly arrived refugee family into their local community. Nearly 280,000 refugees from all corners of the world have been welcomed into the country through Sponsorship since its inception. The Canadian church, in particular, has been noted for its vital role in refugee resettlement work, with one report claiming that churches dominate a government list of pre-approved organisations for refugee sponsorship work. [7]

Sponsoring a refugee family can be both immensely challenging and rewarding. Over a period of two years, a sponsor’s responsibilities include meeting the family at the airport and giving them a warm welcome, providing them direct financial support, sourcing suitable accommodation, arranging language lessons and supporting them towards education, employment and self-sufficiency. For the family, they are given permission to live, work and access certain state benefits, but the primary benefit for them lies in the relatively greater social capital gained from the strong link they have to the local community. Studies in Canada have shown that compared to refugees supported by the state, privately sponsored refugees enjoy far more one-to-one support and more regular contact with their host community, which in turn have led to more successful integration measured in language proficiency and employability. [8]

Sponsorship also holds the potential to foster better relations between different community groups and facilitate cultural learning. For Gail Maillard, refugee co-ordinator of the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, it has helped her find true joy in service. ‘When they walk through that door in the airport, it’s a feeling I can’t even describe’, Millard says. ‘The [refugees] are just absolutely wiped out, but they’re so happy, they’re so relieved. And they’re anxious, as well, because they have to start over in a new country.’ [9]

The opportunity
In October 2015, the former Home Secretary Theresa May announced at the Conservative Party Conference that the UK was to create a similar programme to Canada’s Private Sponsorship. ‘Full community sponsorship’ was developed in the months following, as the Home Office consulted with faith-based organisations like Church Response For Refugees and leading campaign groups like Citizens UK. Community sponsorship was launched jointly by the present Home Secretary Amber Rudd and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop also became the UK’s first community sponsor by welcoming a Syrian family to an empty property on the grounds of the Palace.

The Archbishop once spoke frankly about his feelings for the Syrian family on LBC radio: ‘When you think what they have been through. It reduces us to tears sometimes. It is overwhelming how brave and courageous they are’. [10]

The Catholic Church in England and Wales is also a vocal proponent of Community Sponsorship. The Diocese of Salford became the UK’s second community sponsor when they resettled a Syrian family in November 2016. Reflecting on his experience of taking care of Salford’s Syrian family, the leader of the group Sean Ryan calls it a ‘wonderful blessing’ that has transformed his life and the life of his parish by bringing diverse groups in the community together. [11]

More recently, in March 2017 the Salvation Army welcomed a family into one of their centres in South London, and this was followed by the reception of the UK’s fourth community sponsored refugee family by an ecumenical group in Worthing in recent weeks. More families are expected to arrive over the summer months.

UK Sponsors are formally responsible for the integration and progress of resettled family for one year, and their housing for two. They have to either be a registered charity or a Community Interest Company, and have to demonstrate that they have prior experience in working with vulnerable people. Typically, the sponsorship group will have to demonstrate that they have funds of at least £9,000 to support a three to four-member family.

Community Sponsorship represents an enormous opportunity for civil society to step up to the plate, shift the burden of resettlement from the state to civil society and take direct action to support refugees. My organisation is working closely with over 50 churches and faith groups interested in becoming community sponsors, and we are planning events and workshops across the UK to help churches engage with this meaningful new programme.

In an age of budget cuts and increasing opposition towards refugees and immigrants, Sponsorship offers a viable third way that gives those concerned about the plight of displaced peoples an opportunity to rally together and say, ‘Yes we can’ to showing hospitality to refugees directly. By committing to provide financial, social, and emotional support, sponsors of refugees effectively respond to the Gospel call to ‘go and do likewise’ to the neighbour, who seems all too often to be portrayed by some in our society as the enemy.

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[1] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-casualties-idUSKBN16K1Q1
[2] https://www.mercycorps.org.uk/articles/iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria-turkey/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis
[3] Deuteronomy 10:19, NIV.
[4] Matthew 25:35, NIV.
[5] Home Office Quarterly Immigration Statistics, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-october-to-december-2016/asylum
[6] See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/04/councils-spaces-child-refugees-dubs-amendment for criticism on central government  for criticism on central government and http://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2017/02/councils-are-to-blame-for-the-failure-to-take-more-refugees.html for criticism on local authorities.
[7] See http://globalnews.ca/news/2205206/canadian-churches-play-key-role-in-sponsoring-refugees/ and http://edmontonjournal.com/news/politics/church-groups-play-vital-role-in-bringing-refugees-to-canada-bridging-cultural-gaps
[8] Morton Beiser, ‘Sponsorship and Resettlement Success’, Journal of International Migration and Integration 4.2 (2003), 203–15.
[9] http://edmontonjournal.com/news/politics/church-groups-play-vital-role-in-bringing-refugees-to-canada-bridging-cultural-gaps
[10] http://www.forrefugees.uk/cardinal-nichols-community-sponsorship-is-vehicle-for-church-to-offer-hospitality/
[11] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2017/02/14/salford-leads-the-way-as-church-aims-to-welcome-more-refugee-families/

We would like to thank the Kirby Laing Institute For Christian Ethics (KLICE) for publishing this article in the June 2017 edition of KLICE Comment.