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All Welcome Erewash 2023

Thank you all AWEsome people in the All Welcome Erewash network for everything you've done this year - whether you've fled your country, or are actively supporting asylum seekers, or joined a whatsapp group, or have donated, volunteered, liked or commented on posts, or spread positivity in any way! You make the world a better place! Let's continue to make it a good place in 2024!

 

How it all began

It was at the beginning of November 2022 that I first heard of asylum seekers living in Long Eaton. I could not have known how much support would develop for them from so many people over the coming year. But that day there was uproar on social media, and a hastily arranged public meeting in Sandiacre. There I heard 50 angry voices crying out in fear against asylum seekers in Long Eaton who did not understand our language or culture. At the end of the meeting I asked whether anyone would consider trying to teach them either of these.

 

It did not take long to discover that Long Eaton Masjid had already begun taking up that challenge, at the request of asylum seekers who sought it out for Friday worship. Asylum seekers also began to visit local churches and charities like Upbeat Communities. People from churches, the masjid, and local charities got together, set up a support group for asylum seekers, and managed an information evening and a collection to distribute warm winter clothes just before Christmas at one of the hotels.

 

The same week I went to an exhibition in Leicester celebrating 50 years since Ugandan Asians arrived in the city. I was struck by how similar the local backlash against them in 1972 was to the local response in Long Eaton in 2022, and by how in the years since then, Leicester had embraced everything that those refugees brought that enriched the city and its culture, as human contact and friendships gradually broke down xenophobic barriers. It gave me hope for the future.

 

I did not realise at first how many asylum seekers were going (often walking, before they had any government allowance) into Nottingham and Derby for support from other charities like Nottingham Refugee Forum, Refugee Roots, Care4Calais, and Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity (DRS), and that a Long Eaton hotel support group had been set up independently. As well as helping with clothing, they had been challenging local misunderstanding by getting positive stories about asylum seekers into local media, and directing men who wanted something to do to Erewash Voluntary Action and other charities where they could volunteer.

 

Voluntary activities

Many charities and other groups have provided voluntary opportunities which have allowed asylum seekers to give back to the community - refugee charities like DRS, Upbeat, Red Cross, and NNRF; warm spaces and churches like St John's, Trinity Methodist, All Saints Sawley, Oasis Christian Centre, Stapleford Pastures Church; shops like YMCA, Barnardo's, the Life Shop in Breaston, and Mind; community projects like Manna Food Boxes, Long Eaton Community Garden, Draycott Elephant Rooms, and local litter pickers; with activities including gardening, planting flowers, catering, cleaning, and decorating for community events and spaces, building community gardens and theatre sets, translating and interpreting. Thanks to St John's and Trinity Church, several asylum seekers have gained certificates in food hygiene and safeguarding. Asylum seekers have helped at events such as Breaston May Day Gala (also winning competitions), Long Eaton Carnival, and Beeston Musical Theatre Group performances, and spoken at community and church events, at Nottingham Playhouse, and on radio and TV, about their experiences. Thank you everyone who was involved in any of these activities.

Several guys have been so keen to give back to the community that they seemed to fill almost all their spare time with volunteering. Two received BBC Make a Difference Awards for their contribution to the community - and the custodian of Long Eaton Masjid won in his category, for bringing people together. Well done all three of you, and everyone who helped them achieve these.

 

Community engagement

It was immensely encouraging to learn of the parallel work of the Long Eaton hotel support group, and most helpful to be able to join our efforts together. Knowing of so many local supporters was vital when a protest were announced outside the hotel in February. Volunteers and members of anti-racist groups from Long Eaton and beyond counter-protested in support of local asylum seekers, and outnumbered protestors (comprising far-right visitors from outside the area as well as locals) by at least three to one, both in February and at a protest in April in the town centre - despite extensive leafleting by Patriotic Alternative in the weeks before.

 

Several supporters and asylum seekers got together after the first protest and made plans for improved community engagement. We expanded some existing activities, especially developing our media strategy. Consulting with asylum seekers and Care4Calais, we wrote and posted a series of FAQs online, summarising several of them on a flyer produced by DRS and distributed sensitively to community venues; relaunched our network as All Welcome Erewash (AWE - In AWE of brave & strong folk who took a life changing journey with faith in and hope for the future); set up a social media team, with expert input from an Afghan journalist, to spread positive stories on our Facebook page and beyond; and found opportunities for asylum seekers to volunteer more prominently at community events and shared photos on social media.

 

We also talked about other ways of building bridges, such as cross-cultural education, and facilitating dialogue to build understanding. Eventually none of this seemed necessary, as Leicester's experience was being repeated in Long Eaton. Fearful people changed their minds as they met asylum seekers, and hostile voices dwindled with time.

Social media users spread positivity and expressed thanks for posts debunking myths. AWE supporters who have befriended asylum seekers have shown their friends, family, and neighbours that they are human beings. Churches who supported asylum seekers in cooking delicious food from their own countries won people over through their tastebuds. Asylum seekers gained political support when Erewash elected a Labour council and a Green councillor from our community engagement group, in May. Well done everyone for seeing off the far right, which has not returned in numbers to Long Eaton since April.

 

Sport

Increasing involvement in sport in the community was another goal of community engagement. Draycott's Elephant Rooms were pioneers in physical activity, organising regular walks from the hotels from late in 2022 onwards. Several guys regularly joined Parkrun, and some joined longer organised running events in Derby. Bluetonic invited men to sing and take part in watersports.

 

After careful negotations and support from asylum seekers, West Park authorities and Breaston Parish Council granted space for regular football and cricket pratice, with several volunteers regularly facilitating football in Breaston and engaging with other park users there. Volunteers organised football and cricket matches between hotels in Long Eaton and against other hotel and community teams. A local cricket club and two nearby football clubs welcomed three asylum seekers as regular players. Several AWE supporters provided financial support for them, or donated equipment and kit. Thank you all who helped!

 

Thanks to funding from Sport England, and support from the Active Partnership Trust, Hope Long Eaton were able to fund sports equipment for both hotels for volleyball, basketball, table tennis, cricket, football, and up to 4 months of free West Park Leisure Centre memberships for up to around 100 residents. Sadly it has not been possible to continue this funding so far, but many residents have benefited from donated second hand bikes, some built and mended by a skilled bicycle mechanic from Sudan. Hope Long Eaton has been running regular bike repair workshops, and recently gained funding for more parts, and training in bike use and repair.

 

Hotel staff

Hotels housing asylum seekers get a lot of flak - both from people who do not understand asylum seekers, and at times when it seems as if hotel staff do not understand asylum seekers. In Long Eaton, the staff looking after local asylum seekers, particularly their housing offiers, are excellent - understanding their needs well, protecting them, taking no nonsense, often going the extra mile to help, and having their residents' best interests at heart even when they can't provide everything as they would wish to. With small disruptions from hostile visitors not being unusual, they are rightly wary of visitors' intentions, but it's great to learn how supportive they are once they know they can trust volunteers.

 

Education

The support of hotels was essential to get English classes going in Long Eaton. After initial classes, the masjid first brought me into the hotels and announced to 30 men that the professor had arrived, only for me to explain I was not a teacher! Thankfully several volunteers soon stepped forward who had a great deal more teaching experience than me. We established regular lessons in one hotel, and in the other hotel discovered that two asylum seekers were each already teaching better English lessons to their fellow residents than we could deliver there, several nights a week. Two pairs of English volunteers offered to join each of those classses once a week, proving such popular teachers that their classes continue to this day. Hotels provided space and materials and welcomed around 20 volunteers over the last year. Several individuals kindly donated books and stationery. Since August, thanks to the oversight of Upbeat, volunteers have run a weekly English social and conversation group outside the hotels.

 

Our English teachers have a good deal of experience, but few qualifications in teaching English as a secondary language. More expert teaching has been provided by charities like DRS, Derby Refugee Forum, Upbeat, Mojatu Foundation, and Refugee Roots, and education providers such as Nottingham College, Nottingham Trent University, Derby College, and the Adult Learning Service, with some of these also teaching maths and computing. Some found it hard to recruit and retain tutors, and the demand remains far greater than the provision - but the amount of provision is so much greater than a year ago. Thanks to all who helped improve it.

 

Health support

Dangerous journeys from dangerous places easily cause multiple physical and mental health problems which are not easy to fix in a foreign country and a foreign language when facing an uncertain future. It has been great to meet many responsible for local health services who have the best interests of asylum seekers in mind. Regular meetings focus on improving provision of health services to them, within the constraints of a health service which is stretched for everybody. The hotels have had an important role helping their residents access services, with GPs providing regular clinics in hotels, and secondary health services offering support where needed. Inspirative Arts and Vanclaron have provided regular mental health support in both hotels. Two LE asylum seekers worked with Healthwatch Derbyshire to help asylum seekers understand NHS services in their own languages. Good work everyone!

Clothing

Most asylum seekers arrive in the UK without a change of clothes, and cannot afford to replace worn out clothes with their government allowance. Thanks to many donations of clothes, shoes, and money, the generosity of several charities, and hours of the time of numerous volunteers from both within the hotels and outside, we were able to acquire and distribute clothes and shoes to hundreds of men. Between us we ran six clothes distributions in the hotels, and opened a weekly clothing bank for most of the last six months, seeing many men going away happy with good quality clothes and shoes. Hope Nottingham, Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity, and Long Eaton Masjid continue to distribute clothes too, having supported residents of several other hotels across four counties.

Inspiration

There are many asylum seekers in Long Eaton who it has been a privilege to get to know - those with natural gifts such as leadership and public speaking; those who always smile despite the trauma in their past; those who seek out every opportunity to volunteer and improve their English or other skills, and learn quickly; those keen to integrate and make a contribution to the country where they hope to be granted asylum; those who go out of the way to help strangers and put others' needs before their own; those who put up with hardships without complaint and are grateful for the smallest things; those who win friends and supporters with their enthusiasm and kindness; those who give from the little they have even to people who have more than them; those who have patiently answered the questions that many people ask when they do not understand them; those who have shown themselves resourceful and resilient in their journey to the UK and their activity since arriving; and all of them polite, friendly, and warm in their greetings. I was touched when I learnt that 30 had been talking about how they could help the community by picking litter; that 40 had given their names for a database of volunteers asking for voluntary work; that three spent 2/3 of their meagre government allowance on leisure centre membership before Sport England funded it; that dozens raised funds from their allowance to support the bereaved mother of a fellow asylum seeker who tragically died; that one said he had experienced nothing but kindness from British people; that others wrote notes of thanks; that one local man who was wary of them at first changed his mind after asylum seekers came to his church; and by those who educated me and others about wars and conflicts we knew nothing about. What an inspiring bunch of men have come to live among us!

 

Moving on

It has been great to learn of admirable men being granted refugee status and the right to remain in the UK. Refugee status brings a whole new set of problems, and support and guidance from Derby, Nottingham, and national charities is invaluable. Several AWE volunteers have temporarily housed refugees and helped them find more permanent housing, and others donated household items for when they move on. Others have helped with earlier stages in the process - with completing Home Office questionnaires, support around interviews, and providing welcome packs for men moved from hotels into self-catering accommodation before receiving a decision about their asylum case. Erewash Borough Council has also been keen to get to grips with helping refugees find housing, and they and the Citizens' Advice Bureau (to help with universal credit applications) are planning sessions in the hotels in the New Year. Various banks have helped asylum seekers open accounts, with the support of DRS and AWE volunteers. I also keep hearing reports of how helpful the Job Centre has been in preparing refugees to find work, even if not many have yet been successful. Sadly this winter, many refugees have become homeless, but thanks to local support, as far as we know, this has not happened in Long Eaton yet.

 

Coordination

It's amazing what has been achieved in the time since October 2022, by individuals, charities, faith groups, statutory agencies, asylum seekers, and the hotels looking after them. Many started independently of each other and combined to form the AWE network or found ways to share information and coordinate activity. Many continue to deliver excellent support within their own organisations and networks, independently of AWE.

 

We are thankful for all the AWEsome people who have given time, skills, money, lifts, clothes and other items; raised money for physical activity, clothes, education, or other items; extended welcomes; removed obstacles; offered friendship or a listening ear; hosted parties or trips to beautiful and interesting places; fed asylum seekers or gave them the opportunity to cook; changed their viewpoints; taught English and other skills or provided space for classes; provided voluntary opportunities and activities; talked about their own experiences and educated others; crafted social media posts and responses and found media opportunities; collected, sorted, and distributed clothes, hosted or ran clothing banks; helped men access healthcare or education; supported asylum applications with letters, or help with questionnaires or finding professional advice; provided training, insurance and legal cover; helped refugees open bank accounts, apply for universal credit, find housing, or stay in their own houses. As well as all the help provided by people connected to AWE, it is always good to know how many people outside AWE, in what often seems a hostile environment, want to support and protect asylum seekers - including hotel staff, charities, health workers, teachers, sports team members and leisure centre staff, civil servants, police, and (even if only in private) politicians.

 

It is a privilege to have played a small part in some of this activity, with excellent support from my church, and to have witnessed so much more which has been developed and done by kind, caring people from their own resourceful initiative. Thank you everyone who has contributed towards this, in how ever small a way. Even the smallest donations, or good words shared on social media or with a neighbour, or words of thanks, or idea (even if it has not yet come to anything) has made a positive difference to changing a narrative and building up support or encouragement.

 

All this has happened in a town not used to asylum seekers. We have heard several people cite Long Eaton as a positive example of how a community can turn hostility into welcome. It's also quite AWEsome how much has been achieved by collaboration between organisations, individuals, and other networks. AWE is a brand, but not a charity and has no corporate identity. We're grateful to all the charities who have facilitated AWE's work, particularly Trinity Methodist Church, DRS, Hope Long Eaton, Long Eaton Masjid, Upbeat Communities, Welcome Churches, St John's Church, Long Eaton Baptist Church, Christ Church, St Michael's Breaston, St Mary's Attenborough, as well as all other the charities and groups mentioned earlier, and many others. But it's not just the charities. All this could not have been achieved without the AWEsome individuals within and outside AWE, whether you're associated with a charity or not. You are all AWEsome - AWE supporters are AWEsome, and Long Eaton asylum seekers and refugees are AWEsome. May you all continue to show your AWEsomeness in the coming year.

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