Five Ways Community Sponsorship of Syrian Refugees Makes Organising Sense

By Jonathan Cox

This week marks the launch of ‘Sponsor Refugees – the Citizens UK Foundation for Community Sponsorship of Refugees’.  The whole of our staff, membership and movement will be asked how they can promote the Foundation’s work by encouraging more groups to come forward and resettle a Syrian family through community sponsorship.

There are lots of reasons why Community Organisers should give serious consideration to how they can support the initiative:

  • every sponsorship transforms the life of a Syrian family – taking them from a position of vulnerability and uncertainty in a refugee camp in the Middle East and providing them with security, certainty and a brighter future in the UK;
  • while refugees resettled through community sponsorship are part of, rather than additional to, the 20,000 Syrians the UK Government has pledged to welcome to our country by 2020, community sponsorship will increase the rate at which refugees will be resettled, meaning less time spent languishing in a refugee camp for those families;
  • community sponsorship makes new places of sanctuary out of localities that have never before had the privilege of hosting refugees, and we know (from experience in Canada) that this is good for those communities, good for broadening the geographical spread of refugee protection, and good for encouraging positive attitudes to migration generally.
  • we asked for this – Citizens UK led the campaign that succeeded in obtaining the 20,000 pledge and we also led calls for a community sponsorship scheme to be set up (announced by Theresa May in a relatively coughless party conference speech in 2015).

Yet if these are not reasons enough, there is a bigger one – our experience in Citizens Cymru Wales is that community sponsorship is a great community organising opportunity that will strengthen your alliance in organising terms – recruiting new members, developing leaders, building teams, offering opportunities for action, and ultimately, increasing our power.

Citizens Cymru Wales is being awarded a Pioneer Award at the launch of ‘Sponsor Refugees’ for being at the vanguard of community sponsorship and for equipping leaders in small towns, such as Narberth and Fishguard, to welcome refugee families for the first time.  It has not been easy – pioneers such as Olwen Thomas and Chris Samra in Croeso Abergwaun (Fishguard), Declan Connolly, Christine Hughes and Jill Simpson in Croeso Arberth (Narberth), and Vicky Moller in Croeso Teifi (Cardigan) have laboured hard for over a year get approved by the Home Office, and in doing so have hacked a path through the jungle of the application process which others can now walk through with ease.  If you are considering sponsorship it is worth taking half an hour to listen to BBC Radio Wales’ documentary on the process.  As a result of that hard work, two of the first ten families to arrive in the UK through community sponsorship have arrived in Wales and are settling in well – and our community organising techniques are right at the heart of that success.  At this point, I have to pay tribute to our colleague, Mark Eades Jones, who is our Citizens Organiser based in West Wales.  Mark has put a huge amount of time into supporting the teams in Fishguard and Narberth.

Airport welcome

A Community Organiser’s Approach to Refugee Resettlement

It is totally possible to do community sponsorship using an unrelational, bureaucratic, professionalised service-delivery model.  So how do you transform it into an opportunity for community organising?  Well, many of us were inspired by Jane McAlevey’s seminar on structure tests and I think it is helpful to see the community sponsorship criteria – raising £9,000, locating a house, building a support team etc –  as a series of stretching structure tests for leaders, institutions and alliances.  Whereas some of the McAlevey structure tests seemed a little pointless at times, the community sponsorship structure tests bring you tangibly closer to transforming the life of a Syrian family.

  1. A Compelling Vision and an Organising Challenge of Perfect Proportions

One of the Biblical quotations I have found most useful in my organising career (a close second to ‘Like unto a dog who returns to his vomit, the fool is the one who makes the same mistake twice’) is from Proverbs: ‘Without a vision, the people perish’.  In order to sustainably recruit an institution into membership of Citizens, its leaders must understand our vision and see how joining helps them to achieve theirs.

Sadly, many institutions struggle to engage with the local issues that are the bread-and butter of community organising.  In my experience, the Sunday intercessions, the Monday morning school assemblies, the discussions over coffee after Friday prayers are not dominated by the very real concerns of local people – the snarled-up roads, the low wages, the unreliable buses. This is partly because the leadership of these institutions are not actively listening to the daily lives of their people, partly because they don’t quite know what to do about the minutiae of local injustice, and partly because they read the newspapers and watch the news, in which global social injustice is writ large.

After years of watching the horrors of the Syrian crisis unfold on television, community sponsorship provides a perfect opportunity for institutions to ‘think global, and act local’ – it gives them a chance to translate their anger, their sadness, their powerlessness, into some meaningful action.  Even better, the outcome will be tangible and relational – a living, breathing Syrian family joining them as neighbours.

When we have shared this vision, it is has proved compelling.  Leaders once sceptical about Citizens, or unclear as to what action they would take if they joined, are now practically engaged: “You mean we could bring a Syrian family to our neighbourhood?!”.   And the size of the challenge is also perfect for institutions, or groups of institutions, in an area – too big to be done well by most institutions on their own, but easily tackled by a cluster.

Of course, there are dangers if your alliance becomes dominated or defined by community sponsorship, and we have never railroaded people into it or narrowed our range of campaigns – but in our experience, a chapter vision that includes community sponsorship gives life and energy.

  1. Attracting New Member Institutions

Community sponsorship has, in some cases, attracted new institutions to become members of our alliance – and it has certainly increased our geographical reach and given a nation-wide chapter real meaning. In more cases it has converted institutions that were on the margins of the alliance into active dues-paying members.  The formality of the process, the fact that it requires organising of people and money, and the scale of the challenge makes the support of an organiser and access to our training all the more appealing.

Take the Church in Wales Diocese of Llandaff –  it has been a strategic partner since our founding, but participation on the ground has been sporadic.  Thanks to the engagement of Area Deaneries in community sponsorship, we will be engaging with every parish in our parts of the Diocese by Easter, Deaneries our becoming formal members and clergy and lay leaders are going on National Training and participating in local alliances.  Community sponsorship has been an excellent way for them to realise that community organising is not a novelty, but way to put faith into action.  We have also taken a contemplative action approach alongside this – helping Anglicans, Catholics and Muslims in Wales connect the refugee issue, the community organising method, and habits of social justice.

  1. Developing Leaders

As one of the volunteers from Salford says on the Community Sponsorship promotional video, “It is about a lot of people doing a small thing, not a small group of people doing a lot.”  There are so many tasks involved in the preparation and welcome of a family through community sponsorship, that there are literally dozens of leadership development opportunities on offer.  There is a real risk that a small group keep these to themselves, but much of the learning from our Cultures, Institutional Development and Scheduling workshops on National Training can become the bedrock of your community sponsorship plan.

Jane McAlevey talks about the importance of community organisers moving away from organising only those leaders with high levels of commitment, to organising those with high levels of capacity.  Sometimes, as organisers, we are directed to meet with people on the basis that the primary leader thinks they have needs we can solve, or because they are particularly committed to social justice, or just because they are time-rich.  I have met many wonderful people this way, but the challenge is always to get deep enough into an institution that you are able to engage with high-capacity leaders as well as high-commitment leaders.  Again, community sponsorship has been a boon in this regard – given the importance of the task, primary leaders are taking risks and bringing their busy, high-capacity leaders into the mix.  These are people it would probably have taken me years to meet otherwise.

  1. Building Teams

When we did a recent review of our chapter, we picked up the lack of core teams in member institutions as a major weakness.  The community sponsorship application process requires that you have a large team – Lead Co-ordinators, First Friends, ESOL, Interpreting, Community Integration, Fundraising, Housing etc.  Some of our newer member institutions now have stronger teams than those who have been involved in Citizens for years – and we insist on them attending training in which we encourage relational techniques.  Community organising makes more sense to a larger group of people in an institution more quickly in the context of a campaign like community sponsorship.

Community sponsorship has also built teams across institutions.  In Cardiff we have a Roman Catholic parish and two mosques working together to resettle one family in their neighbourhood – pooling their collective resources and building stronger relationships together.  Community sponsorship is giving our core teams a sense of purpose.

Airport welcome (003)

  1. A Campaign with Opportunities for Action

So far I have written about aspects of organising related to institutional development.  But community sponsorship is a campaign and it offers plenty of opportunities for action.  Our teams in West Wales organised dozens of actions in the year prior to the family arriving to engage the wider community and gain their backing for the plan – and to organise the people and money they needed to proceed.

In addition, while the Home Office pride themselves on having not yet turned down a community sponsorship application outright, gaining consent from your local council may well be a challenge.  Even (and sometimes particularly) in councils that have taken on resettlement themselves, you may well run up against concerns about sourcing housing, or finding schools, or about whether ‘amateurs’ should be allowed to do this at all.  You may also find some councils responding to community sponsorship applications by trying to reduce their own resettlement commitments. Our groups in Wales have faced all of these challenges in various places and at various points in the process, and each time we have had to organise to get the active permission of the powers-that-be – including an accountability assembly, lobbying of councillors, generating media coverage, attending council scrutiny committees, and public actions.  In consequence, the tension generated through these actions mean our alliances are taken more seriously, and our relationships with senior councillors are stronger than previously.

For Citizens Cymru Wales, community sponsorship makes community organising sense.  Fishguard, Narberth and Cardigan are geographically-isolated, have no track record of hosting refugees, limited infrastructure and an average population of 3,200.  If they can sponsor a Syrian refugee family then there is no excuse for any village, town or council ward in the country not to do the same.  There are 43,588 settlements of this size in the UK – if over the next decade even a quarter follow our lead and sponsor a refugee family the impact will be transformational: increasing refugee protection, creating more places of welcome, and growing community organising.

Jonathan Cox is the Deputy Director of Citizens UK  and the Lead Organiser of 
Citizens Cymru Wales 

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