Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be an asylum seeker or refugee? I don’t think there can be many things worse than having to leave your home, sometimes family, friends, all that you know and hold dear and have to make a new life in a foreign, strange and often hostile land. You can’t take your belongings with you and you wouldn’t know what the future held for you or perhaps the small children you might be bringing with you, you might not even speak the language. The choices you have are stark; stay in your homeland and perhaps starve or be killed, or leave. Thankfully, this is not a position many of us will find ourselves in. I write this from the comfort of my beautiful, comfortable and safe home in Northwood.
My mother, a Guyanese immigrant, came to England in the early 60’s by choice. Though it wasn’t an easy transition, it was one that was made easier with the support of family and friends already here, but more importantly the wholehearted support of the British Government. At that time, West Indians were invited to come to the mother land to help support the rebuild of the country after the war. The welcome was not as warm as expected but at least we were asked to come and getting work was relatively straightforward. The same cannot be said for asylum seekers; they are often looked down upon as scroungers at worst and nuisances at best. This myth has been relayed and replayed so often that it’s hard not to conjure up a stereotypical picture of a refugee in our heads – invariably the individual is black and African.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to spend a day in Leeds with John Walsh and Catherine Hall from the York Street Practice – more about that and them later – one of the first places they took me to visit was a project called Positive Action For Refugees and Asylum Seekers ( PAFRAS). The woman that runs the project is called Christine Majid, a 5′ 2″ white powerhouse of energy, determination and drive. Through sheer doggedness and perseverance she has kept the PAFRAS project going for many years. She started out by seeing a need and organised herself to give food, drink, clothes and support to asylum seekers and refugees from the boot of her car. On this occasion, the drop in part of the project was held at St. Aidan’s church, community hall in Harehills, Leeds. The hall was heaving with people, mostly black, some Asian and others from various African and Middle Eastern countries – these people attend the project to get food, clothes, advice and support, to meet each other, network and I think to have fun. What struck me was the warmth of the people and the dignity they displayed. The whole place was alive and buzzing. The women were sitting quietly talking whilst children played; men were discussing who knows what over cups of tea. The smell of delicious food being cooked permeated the building and everyone there would be able to have a hot meal. On a cerebral level, I guess I know that being a refugee or asylum seeker is hard, but seeing how hard, seeing people that are in that situation made it real, it made me stop and think.
As an Asylum seeker you are – until you get your papers to all intents and purposes – destitute. In other words to the state, you don’t exist. What does that mean? Well it means access to absolutely nothing – no benefits, no housing, no food, shelter, nothing. That, on top of leaving your country, must be devastating, depressing and frightening. These people live by the good grace and charity of others, people like Christine who works tirelessly to help destitute people and their families, where does that kind of goodness and grace come from? In addition, there are another group of people – the dispossessed – these are the people that have had their request for asylum turned down and who cannot return to their countries, for fear of death or torture and who will not get Government assistance to survive here, ever. Have you ever wondered how you would manage without an address, bank account or NI number? I know that this and immigration are hot political issues and high on the Governments agenda. However, we have a problem and it’s here in our towns and cities, ignoring it will not make it disappear. There are a growing number of these people in our major cities. Unsurprisingly, these people have higher than average health issues, one of the outcomes is increased attendance of destitute and homeless people at A &E. This is the York Street Practice, a one stop shop for homeless people, asylum seekers and the destitute steps in to help. The practice registers people that other practices would turn away, John Walsh and Catherine Hall and their team of doctors, nurses and support workers do an outstanding job of helping to get people the care, both health and social that they need. No one is turned away or deemed not worthy of registration.
I met John and his team for the first time a couple of months ago, they are an incredible group of people, if you want to see leadership in action, leadership that leads to respectful partnership working, community involvement and positive outcomes for patients as well as a great working environment for staff then you should visit John, Catherine and their team at York Street, I know that they would welcome you. I suspect there are many more people like John and Catherine out there, I met a couple more on my day out in Leeds – Kim Parkinson and the Reverend Steve Dye, who run the St George’s Crypt, another charity that supports homeless people, selflessly giving back to society and others less fortunate than themselves, humbling stuff.
Magnificent people, leading from the front, doing fantastic things on meagre budgets, changing lives and making a real difference, we can learn so much from them and I can say first hand that I did.
Sounds twee to say ‘thank you and keep up the good work’ but it has to be said and to be frank, I don’t know where we’d be as a country or society without people like them.
PS. If you have five minutes, read this poem, it’s on the PAFRAS website, and it’s awesome.