‘At times, it felt like being back home!’ commented one of the participants on the trip. She was one of the 17 refugees who took part in a 3-day visit to Somerset last March. The trip was organised by an amazing team of 7 volunteers and was attended by current and former residents of Fatima House and the members of Hope Garden. Both Birmingham projects based have been either led or supported by Columban missionaries over the years. The trip was sponsored by private donors.
The group stayed at the Cheddar YHA Hostel, which served as an excellent base to access local attractions. The hostel facilities helped develop a sense of camaraderie among the participants along with the volunteers. Every day, the group shared food, laughter, and stories, whether sitting around the long dining table, travelling in the minibus, or rambling around this beautiful part of the country.
It was a wet and grey day when we visited Weston Super Mare, but that did not prevent the group from having a fun walk along the beach. As one of the refugees exclaimed, ‘The group had to be determined not to allow the British weather to ruin our holidays!’ Once at the hostel, the group enjoyed freshly cooked traditional fish and chips from the local takeaway, which went perfectly with the delicious injeras and stews cooked by the Eritreans in the group.
The group also decided to explore the Cheddar Gorge. The gorge’s stunning mountain views and its exuberant natural life prompted our friends to take thousands of photos. The gorge’s wild sheep, which crossed the group’s path that morning, must have felt like real celebrities posing for a frantic photo session. As one of the participants put it, the memories brought about by the pictures taken at that beautiful place would ‘lighten up my mood on difficult days or when I feel lonely.’
The end of the second evening provided the group with what I consider the most memorable moment of this trip. It was an impromptu party with a mixture of individual performances, a bit of sing-along, plenty of intercultural dancing and endless laughter. Seeing this group of refuge friends-whom we know have struggled so much- enjoying themselves and feeling at home with each other, made all the intense preparations for this trip worthwhile. A member of Hope Garden felt moved to improvise a wonderful prayer at the end of the evening that night, expressing ‘gratitude because today -in sharing and laughing with each other- God has added members to my family in the UK’, she prayed.
On the final day, after a hectic morning of packing and tidying the place, the group visited the local Cheese factory. After learning how the whey is drained and the curds are cut, cooked, pressed, salted and moulded – the group participated in a delicious tasting session. A particularly humbling moment of that morning, saw some of the refugee friends insisting on buying gifts to show appreciation to the volunteers.
From there, our fantastic volunteer drivers took the group through the snowy Mendip Hills to reach the magnificent town of Wells. Snow had fallen the night before, making this journey worthy of even more picture-taking!
The group, which from a faith perspective was comprised of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians from different denominations and traditions, was very open and respectful to visiting the magnificent Wells Cathedral. Some of them- even the non-Christians- found their time for silence and prayer. A warm bowl of soup and hot drinks at the Cathedral’s Café (taking advantage of a very welcomed group discount) was a fitting end to these memorable holidays with our refugee friends. A snowy Birmingham welcomed us back later that day. Despite the cold weather in Birmingham, the sense of gratitude we all felt was palpable.
On a personal level, I also felt gratitude for the many good moments shared in Somerset. But alongside the good memories, a small incident on the second day of the trip stayed with me. While walking in small groups through Cheddar, three young men from inside a van shouted, ‘Go back home’ as they drove past the groups -while blowing the horn and making obscene gestures to the group. On that week in March, more details of the Government’s hostile immigration policy were revealed and, just a few weeks earlier, violence had erupted outside a centre hosting refugees in Knowsley. This small incident in Cheddar- somehow unnoticed by most in the group- was to me only a reminder of how refugees in our cities can easily become targets of nasty actions and abusive words: without doubt, all this is the fruit of divisive and hostile immigration narratives and policies.
Our continued support and journeying with refugees in Birmingham is our local response to the principle recently reiterated by the Catholic bishops: ‘People have a right to seek a fulfilled life outside their homeland, especially if they are unable to live in dignity there.’ Also, it was another reminder that Christians are called by the Gospel to ‘reach out the hand of friendship to migrants and refugees so that they can help us grow in the love of God and we can together grow in universal fraternity and solidarity.’