Church group renovates house for refugee family

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IT IS a sunny day in late September, and I am walking down a residential street in east London. I pass by rows of identical terraced houses, until I come to one with its door ajar. This must be it.

I had heard that a group of volunteers was coming together to renovate a house in time for the arrival of a family. As it turned out, the family were new to the country, and were to be resettled from their homeland, Syria, as refugees. I had just stumbled across my first experience of a Community Sponsorship Programme.

Unveiled by the Home Office in July 2016 to resettle refugees in the UK (News, 22 July 2016), the Community Sponsorship Programme is part of the vulnerable-persons relocation scheme set up in 2014 (News, 5 December 2014). It allows community groups to take up the responsibility of resettling refugee families in their own areas, if they can provide evidence of sufficient funds, experience in community work, and a solid plan for resettlement. They can apply to resettle a family after getting approval from the local authority and making an application to the Home Office, who, if successful, match them with a family through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

One group taking up this responsibility is Hillsong, an international church with a London congregation who wanted to resettle a family in the borough of Newham, where some of their members live and work.

“We were quite keen from the beginning . . . but the whole process with the Home Office, and getting the plan in order, took over a year,” a spokesman for the project, Ralph Boer, says. “Now we are getting the house ready; the family’s arriving; and then it’s helping them settle in: making sure they integrate well.”

Through the programme, the newly arrived family will be under Hillsong’s care for one year, receiving help to access social services and English classes. Families coming through the Programme arrive as refugees with limited leave for five years and are then able to apply to the Home Office for indefinite leave to remain. For the families, it is the opportunity for a fresh start. For the community groups involved, it is a chance for direct social action on a local scale.

The house itself is perfect for a family: a mid-Victorian terrace with a back garden, as usual in east London. I arrive on day five of an eight-day renovation project, and work is fully under way, scrubbing, painting, assembling furniture, and gardening.

Hillsong’s application has attracted praise from a Labour Councillor in Newham, Seyi Akiwowo, who worked closely with Hillsong throughout the planning process.

“It’s been a real privilege to be able to help Ralph and the team on this, and I hope this is just the start of many more resettlements in Newham and across London,” she says. “I think the Community Sponsorship Scheme is a fantastic way for
both the voluntary sector and the community to support refugees in the UK.”

She is also cautious, however, about the pressure that the scheme could place on local authorities already stretched by funding cuts. In July — by which point 53 families had been resettled — the Home Secretary announced a further £1 million in funding to help communities taking part in the programme (News, 19 July).

As I leave the house, I am overcome by the efforts of this community. One can only hope that this success continues with the family’s resettlement over the coming years.

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