Time to step up and embrace the Community Sponsorship Scheme

Retired GP Paul Kelly, project lead for ReSETTLE, talks to us about the first community sponsorship project in the Leeds Diocese in the north of England.

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Back in 2015 at the height of the Syrian civil war, Pope Francis called on every European Catholic parish to host one refugee family. In the lead up to this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the news headlines are dominated by stories of a huge displacement of people fleeing violence and instability – not least the grave situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban regime re-taking Kabul.

However, the Community Sponsorship Scheme offers some light in the darkness here in England and Wales.

Fitting, then, that we’re talking to Paul Kelly, a retired GP from Yorkshire who is project lead for ReSETTLE, the first community sponsorship project in the Leeds Diocese in the north of England.

INTERVIEWER: Could you briefly tell us what Community Sponsorship actually is?

It’s a Home Office scheme, and it’s a scheme for re-settling people who’ve been given refugee status. It’s modelled on decades of experience in Canada. It’s there in a standard way of assimilating refugees into their society. And what it involves is forming a community group that takes total responsibility for the resettlement of a refugee family. Obviously, they will have had to have fled their country to qualify as refugees and the family will have been vetted and selected by the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, in conjunction with our government.

They’ll all be families suffering some kind of vulnerability. There is a threat to their life. Maybe they’ve got special special needs that can’t be met where they are.

What Community Sponsorship is is the group that comes together in this country and literally does everything… The family’s selected for you and you meet them at the airport, arrange for them to have a home to live in. You arrange for them to access services like health care, schools, doctors, dentists, benefits, all the things that you need to live in this country and of course, to learn English. So you take total responsibility for that for two years.

The government said when they launched Community Sponsorship about three, four years ago, that they actually wanted it to become the preferred method. I think it’s not the predominant method yet, but that’s what their hope was. One of the most fantastic things, you often hear the government make announcements that they’re going to bring particular numbers of people to the country. And Community Sponsorship groups are bringing additional people. They’re not part of the national announcements, so that’s a real strength of the scheme.

INTERVIEWER: Touching on that idea of the wrap around support a refugee family gets when they go through the Community Sponsorship scheme, Pope Francis’s message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees appeals to each of us to move towards an ever wider “we” to ensure that no one is left behind. What does that mean to you as somebody who has hosted and supported a refugee family throughout those two years in your own community?

It’s interesting… In his message, right near the beginning of his message, Pope Francis says to us we’ve got a choice, you know, as we’re coming out of the pandemic and rebuilding things across the world. He says we can either go down an ultra consumerist, egotistical sort of self-preservation – very much holding ourselves to ourselves, everything is “them”, it’s outside. Or we can build a culture where it’s all of us together – it’s “we”.

I was a GP in my working life – I spent 30 years in a family practise. During those years, you have the privilege of watching lots of children growing up and you realise that with those children, the family that they happen to be born into has a huge effect on the experience that they have. Many, many diverse experiences depend on the family you’re born into. Many of those experiences are good. But it’s just the same about which country you’re born into.

You could be born into a country that’s war-torn, full of conflict, there’s famine or the effects of climate change. There’s the effects of ravages, of disease. And those things are not accidents. Most of those things have happened because of choices, choices that we make as individuals that leaders have made. I mean, in spiritual terms, they’re sinful. The result of that, for me, is, firstly, it makes me want to campaign when I see and sense this injustice. I really want to campaign to change that systemic injustice.

But I also want to do something personally. And that’s where Community Sponsorship comes in. How it started in Settle, here, myself and another parishioner went to a talk about it. When we’d heard this talk, we just looked at each other and said, “we can do this in Settle”. And for me, being a member of a Community Sponsorship group, that’s doing my bit for making sure that no one’s left behind.

Just imagine if every parish, not only in Britain but right across the Western World, if they did it, wow, the effect would be just amazing.

INTERVIEWER: It would be astonishing to see that impact worldwide. I’m really intrigued by your personal experiences. Pope Francis talks about have been enriched by diversity and cultural exchange, by this idea of encounter, personally what has it taught you to have a family that perhaps wouldn’t usually live in Settle, North Yorkshire, within your community?

It’s taught me a great deal Jake. Settle’s a rural market town. Lots of people know it. It’s the gateway to the Dales and we’ve got a real mixed community – people who have lived here all their lives and also people who’ve moved in, attracted by what the area has to offer. It has a fantastic community spirit but there’s no ethnic diversity to speak of here. And curiously, I worked in quite a deprived part of the country in my work as a GP, but equally, there was actually very little ethnic diversity to it. So I’d had very little experience of it until I came to Community Sponsorship and felt called to that.

You know, one of the things that’s really exciting when we were doing the preparation – it takes about a year to prepare the groundwork to welcome a family and working with the Home Office and the community group – what was really exciting was quite a lot of people, when they are sort of sharing why they joined the group, they wanted the enrichment of diversity. They said, you know, “I want to see this happen in Settle” and felt it would be something good for all of us.

One of the things for me with community sponsorship, it’s kind of really emphasised the power of getting to know people as individuals rather than the kind of thing that happens at a party, you know, “what do you do?”, “where are you from?” You immediately pigeon hole people and you have stereotypes if they say that they’re a carer, or they say they’re a bank manager. You immediately have stuff in the back of your head.

The power of Community Sponsorship is actually learning to get to know people as people, you know, what do you like? What do you need tomorrow? Shall we do this form together? Come and have a look at this thing in our landscape? Then it becomes “we”, it’s not “them” and “us”.

The real richness, for me, is that we think we know how to do everything, we know how to think, we know how to solve problems because we’ve been brought up in our culture. But when you encounter another culture and actually get to share somebody’s life, you discover there are other ways of understanding family, other ways of making big decisions, other ways of worshipping God. That is so enriching. It’s a bit challenging. I find that diversity has taught me that it’s something we need to do. You might not think, I need to encounter other cultures, but it’s so enriching.

The other interesting thing is that you realise as soon you get to know somebody personally, you’re just the same in some ways. You have the same worries… “Is my kid really ill?”. “Do I need to go and see the doctor or go to A&E?” “How shall I deal with this bit of bureaucracy? What might be the outcome?” You have just the same worries and anxieties. It’s not “them” and “us”. We’re just the same.

And I must add, I’ve had some fantastic Middle Eastern cuisine! Something, again, I’d not really experienced. And the family that have been here in Settle for two years now. Oh, wow. The food that they share is just amazing.

INTERVIEWER: I really like the way you talk about getting to know the person, the individual. We live in a world, particularly in Western society, of statistics, of fear, of worrying about people coming and being burdened rather than this being a cultural exchange – standing shoulder-to-shoulder. What would your message be to Catholics in England and Wales listening to this? Should they get involved in community sponsorship?

The short answer is yes. You mentioned fear there, Jake, and I think that’s a really important thing just to tease out a bit. We all experience fear. But fear of immigration, fear of migrants and asylum seekers, I think, is to do with fear of difference. This theory that we can only get to know and relate to 100 – 150 people and that becomes our tribe effectively and anything that threatens to topple it, overwhelm it, dilute it, I think causes fear.

In the Gospels, Jesus is always saying, “do not be afraid”. So that’s clearly a Good News imperative. So somehow, as Christians, we’re actually told we’ve got to overcome that fear.

I think it does go back to getting to know people personally. Suddenly you experience the richness. It’s not “them” and “us” anymore, it’s “we”. We pray every day Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done. To me it’s an absolute no brainer to encourage all of us to support people in need. That’s part of our Catholic calling.

There are lots of ways to do that, but Community Sponsorship’s a brilliant way as it’s really responding to need and it has this amazing spin off that our own community’s drawn together.

I’ve met people and appreciated talents and skills in our community here that I just didn’t know existed and I’ve formed new friendships. So it’s a fantastic thing. Once you know people, you’re not going to be afraid of them. Get stuck in. I would say, do it!

Two or three years ago, the Pope did actually ask that every community should take a refugee family and I’m not really sure there has been a big response to that. Maybe this is the moment, now, when we’re so aware of what’s happened in Syria with the conflict and more recently, the Afghanistan disaster. I think this is the time to step up. It’s part of the Gospel message – and it’s great.

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