The latest monthly prayer vigil for refugees at the Home Office in London on Monday 16 October prayed for those who have died trying to reach the UK, asylum seekers in detention centres and those experiencing hostility in the UK asylum process. It was organised by the London Catholic Worker, Westminster Diocese Justice and Peace Commission, and the London Churches Refugee Fund.
Around 20 people attended and a reflection was given by James Trewby, who heads the Columban Justice, Peace and Ecology team. He said:
“When I started to plan today’s reflection, I had a serious case of imposter syndrome. Who am I to share with all you committed faith-inspired activists, gathering monthly to lament our country’s failure to ‘welcome the stranger’? I work for the Columbans – and they work hands-on with people seeking sanctuary around the world, including with destitute asylum seekers in Birmingham. Many of them, lay and ordained, could share incredible first-hand reflections. But that’s not me – I work instead with Catholic young people, teachers, chaplains, and youth workers, to help them explore the relationship between faith and action. My job exists in the intersection of education, activism and people on the margins – for example, those on the front line of the climate crisis or asylum seekers stuck in sometimes never-ending processes. I aim to help people to see, judge and act – learn about injustice, reflect on it, consider Catholic Social Teaching, and discern how to respond.
So today I want to share reflections from those I work with and something of my response to them. Working with Hallam Diocese, we run a programme for sixth formers and teachers that includes visiting projects in Calais. Sometimes this includes Secours Catholique, a drop-in centre run by Caritas France. On the last visit, lots were going on – football, phone charging, conversation, board games, art, table football, laundry, and much more. There were people from so many countries, all rubbing along together, with lots of noise and chatter. I expected our young people to hold back a bit, to stand at the side looking nervous. Not at all! Within minutes they were spread out around the centre, making friends, listening, smiling, and playing games. And this is only a snapshot of their wonderful engagement throughout the programme. However tired they were, they always dived in, did what was asked of them and more, and then, although exhausted, prayed and reflected deeply on their learning. There is no doubt that they will build on this experience and continue to work for justice for refugees. I came away filled with hope in young people and their capacity to build a better world.
One young lady, Kirsty, a 17-year-old from Doncaster, permitted me to share some of her reflections with you today:
“The Western world is good at shining a light on humanitarian issues for very brief spurts of time. We then have a social media hashtag and collect donations to be sent in aid. Despite this being beneficial in raising awareness and helping refugees in the short term, the public outcry ends in the blink of an eye. It becomes too easy for the government to once again ignore those in need. The shoes, clothes, tents etc. that we send are slashed, broken and burned consistently in police raids. The only way we can cause long-term change is by advocating for it… We must hold politicians accountable as it is policies and laws that we need to change. Refugees are not criminals to be locked away on barges. Refugees do not deserve to be isolated and displaced. Refugees are not suspects to be interrogated endlessly. They are people searching for peace. Why can’t we grant them this?”
Working collaboratively with the Birmingham charity ‘Stories of Hope and Home’, and inspired by ‘Fratelli Tutti’, we organise ‘Festivals of Encounter’, taking groups of Catholic educators and people seeking safety in Britain for residential programmes filled with opportunities for formal and informal encounter. Similarly, we bring asylum seekers and refugees into schools to help students understand the issues.
I want to share the voices of teachers who have had these experiences today:
“Participation in the programme has been a defining moment in my life; it was a transformative experience. Spending time with people seeking sanctuary ignited a desire in me to know and understand more, and to do more. … to be more involved in asylum issues, volunteering and advocating and also having the confidence to challenge misinformation and negative stereotyping.”
“It gave the school the confidence to continue doing what is right even when it left us feeling vulnerable to DfE directives. This resolve led to large events throughout the year and a continued positive message of welcome.”
“As educators, we must ensure we are helping to form young people with a deep understanding of our global responsibilities to humanity and our common home. With conflict and the ever-increasing effects of climate change, it seems likely there will be a continuing increase in people being displaced and needing to seek sanctuary. This makes it even more important to challenge the negative rhetoric, to make sure we are all well informed, and to care!”
I hope you are encouraged by the teachers’ responses – and by the young people who so often want to take action on the issues. We hear God’s call to mission in the signs of the times – let us continue to respond.
I will continue to help young people and educators explore the relationship between faith and action for the common good. I’ll share, for example, the prophetic witness of this vigil outside the Home Office and the many people who are helping refugees and calling for justice, examples of lived faith. I do so with belief in the capacity of young people to make a difference and to engage with difficult realities. I pray that our country repents from its shameful failure to welcome people in need. And I encourage all of us to continue to campaign for change, for safe passage, for dignity in our asylum process, for welcome.”