Looking back, this has been a year of both consolidation and development.
Crucially another 9 Syrian families have been housed in Cheltenham, making a total of 18, with more expected before the end of the year. Their primary support comes from the GARAS Resettlement Worker with help from CWR volunteers. Individuals working with CWR have got to know some of the families well, and offer friendly support in all sorts of ways. CWR’s main contribution is the monthly Community Café bringing the families together to meet, eat and practice English – and the children to play!
Another social highlight is the Summer Picnic, held with the support of the University, open to all with 100 or more people enjoying the food and the music and the various entertainments (with workshops and craft activities this year provided by The Everyman Theatre).
Volunteers to help with the Café and the Picnic are always greatly appreciated – and drivers to assist the families without their own transport.
The other area of work of direct benefit to the families is the search for accommodation larger than that supplied by the Council, ideally targeting families with three or more children. So far, CWR has identified two such properties, and we need more volunteers to help with this search for socially-aware private landlords prepared to let property for less than the maximum market value (i.e. Housing Benefit rates) while developing a sense of contributing towards a better community.
We have also sought to ensure that English language teaching is coordinated to make best use of local resources by bringing the various providers together to discuss issues and share ideas. Another conference is planned on 14th November.
The other main thread of our work is to raise local awareness and develop proactive understanding. We continue to do this through the provision of school assemblies and workshops. We have established contacts with all of Cheltenham’s secondary schools and 60% of the primary schools. Our work with primary schools, especially, has generated interest further afield and we are looking to share our experiences and training materials.
Our Social Media presence grows with 750 followers on Facebook and 170 people on our Newsletter mailing list. We recognise the need to improve and update our website, and are working on this at the moment.
We have spoken at various meetings and provided stalls at various events, but a highlight of the year was a much expanded programme of events for National Refugee Week in June. We organised a Meet and Greet for volunteers and potential volunteers, a Film night, a Storytelling event and an evening of traditional Syrian dance. Alongside this was a theatre performance at the Everyman and a Book Launch at the Suffolk Anthology. All were very well-attended and well-received. We also had some positive media coverage on Radio Gloucestershire. The same week also saw a series of activities for the families organised by The Everyman.
The success of National Refugee Week demonstrated our growing partnerships with major players like The Everyman and also with venues such as The Swan, The Scandinavian Coffee Pod, The Sober Parrot and The School House Café. The Picnic would not be such a success without the support of the University of Gloucestershire. We have been in discussions with the Global Footsteps café but have settled on Friends Meeting House as our regular venue for meetings. We are starting to talk to The Wilson about arranging events for refugee families. The Suffolk Anthology continues to put on events we are happy to publicise.
Organisationally, a lot of energy this year was spent making sense of the new General Data Protection Regulations. This meant our work on a volunteer database has slipped.
But the Core Group is working well, working hard and still finding time to enjoy each other’s company.
Not everything has gone well as we would have liked, of course. Although we are maintaining links with Education Centres in the refugee camps of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and are working to provide them with more computers, we have not been able to establish the student to student links we were hoping for. We started to provide individual volunteers to support local Syrians looking for work, but the different approach of the Job Café at the Hester’s Way Resource Centre seems to be working well and we are looking to support that initiative instead. And, finally, we would like to have been able to recruit more volunteers (for the Café, for the Picnic, to give lifts, to help with the website and social media, and to help find more landlords) – an ongoing task as people inevitable move on and we take on more work.
But nor are we the only people contributing to making Cheltenham a place that Welcomes Refugees. We are delighted that Gardners Lane and Oakwood Primary Schools have achieved School of Sanctuary status. We congratulate the University on setting up the Michael Perham Sanctuary Scholarship. We know that many churches make very generous contributions. We know that many volunteer teachers go the extra mile to the make the families they are working with feel welcome. Individual CWR volunteers have enhanced their understanding of refugees by volunteering in refugee camps in France and Greece.
Looking forward: we know that families will be continuing to arrive until the end of 2019, so our contribution to their support needs to be maintained. We need to continue to find a range of accommodation options. We need to sustain our current partnerships and seek new ones. We know that world events will continue to create refugees and we need to ensure that people are properly informed about this. There is still much to do, and, in order to meet the growing demands of local refugee support, more help is needed.