Refugee Week 2023

Refugee Week is an annual celebration held in the UK to recognise and celebrate refugees and people seeking sanctuary in the UK. The theme for this year’s Refugee Week was Compassion – something which is a true mark of Christian character, and which is embodied by our members and communities involved in refugee support programmes. CSAN has a number of members involved in the refugee response, providing outreach support, running targeted projects and supporting with resettlement programmes. This Refugee Week, we wanted to highlight the work of our members and celebrate the compassion shown across the Catholic community.

It was an eventful week full of in-person events, prayers and exhibitions, as well as online reflective meetings in which we discussed how best to welcome the stranger in light of the recent publication of Love The Stranger. For those who missed out on any of this year’s events, we have compiled a summary of events.

We look forward to a bigger celebration of Refugee Week in 2024, highlighting more of the projects within our communities and the people behind them!

Coffee Morning: Diocese of Arundel & Brighton

To launch Refugee Week, the Diocese of Arundel & Brighton held a coffee morning at St Gabriel’s Church in Billingshurst. It was an inspiring event, attended by many passionate individuals who are actively involved within their communities, supporting refugees and people seeking sanctuary. Bishop Richard Moth opened the session, which was led by Canon Kieron O’Brien.

Discussion was centred around how we can welcome and love the stranger, particularly in light of the recent publication of Love the Stranger. Recognising the political challenges, reflection on such themes allows for collaborative working to dispel the harmful rhetoric and to protect the human dignity of those seeking sanctuary. There was consensus on the need for safe routes, as we reflected on currents schemes available. One such scheme is the Ukraine matching service offered by SJOG’s Homes for Ukraine project, which they presented on, speaking of its successes thus far and the continued need for hosts as the war continues. It was a morning of engaging conversation amongst a community of active individuals from across the diocese, all of whom are moved by their faith to act. The Diocese of Arundel & Brighton is committed to promoting its refugee response and engaging the community. In 2015 Bishop Richard established the Diocese’s Refugee Migrant Fund which has helped people in need across the diocese and enabled the diocese to provide grants to a range of charities operating across the diocese, whilst promoting the mission of the Church. More information about the fund can be found on their website.

Coffee Mornings to discuss the refugee response are also an initiative introduced by the diocese to further promote the Church’s mission and support the community to welcome, protect, integrate and promote refugees and migrants. We look forward to future coffee mornings and encourage all parishes and dioceses to consider holding such informal sessions to bring together the community and reflect on how we can best love the stranger.

Prayer & Reflection: Diocese of Westminster

On Monday 19th June, we gathered outside the Home Office in Marsham Street to hold a prayer service and call upon the government to promote fairer policies. The gathering was especially powerful given the recent drowning of a migrant boat off the Greek coast, which was estimated to be carrying up to 750 individuals, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, including women and children.

The Diocese of Westminster Justice & Peace Commission holds a monthly prayer vigil to remember those who died on our shores as they sought sanctuary. This vigil was especially important as it coincided with Refugee Week and included a reflection by Bishop Paul McAleenan, Lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference England & Wales (CBCEW). Bishop Paul reflected on the hardships and hazards endured by refugees, mentioning the recent loss of life in Greek waters and highlighting ‘the decisions and the policies which have been in place for many, many years which make such tragedies almost inevitable’, noting the lack of compassion in such policies. Bishop Paul further emphasised the need for safe routes, a call echoed by those gathered with placards.

Prayers were led by Brother Johannes Maertens from London Catholic Worker, and he was joined by a group of students from Newman Catholic School in Harlesden, who prayed for the lives lost on their journey to safety, those continuing to suffer conflict and persecution, and those residing in refugee camps, as well as those in the UK who continue to suffer a hostile system.

Prayers and reflections were accompanied by the London-based electro-pop band Ooberfuse, who performed their latest song titled ‘Show Me Love’, which features soulful vocals from Kurdish refugee Newroz Oremari. The song was inspired by the recent publication Love The Stranger and speaks of hope for a better future, calling on us to show compassion, to show love, and to welcome the stranger.

Ooberfuse filmed the music video for their song in Dover, featuring the iconic cliffs and beaches which are often the first sight of Britain for those arriving by sea in search of safety. The music video also features the Dover memorial plaques, including a plaque with the words of Pope Francis “Every migrant has a name, a face, and a story”. Seeking Sanctuary‘s Ben Bano and Phil Kerton held a memorial service by the plaques along the seafront to remember those who lost their lives whilst seeking safety and refuge. This was followed by performances from Ooberfuse, who returned to Dover for Refugee Week, and performed alongside some refugee friends. The video below shows the memorial and performances, and features an excerpt from their song ‘Show me love’:

In the lead up to Refugee Week, Ooberfuse also delivered workshops in the Diocese of Westminster, where they worked with refugee friends to express their feelings in lyric form. One such workshop was held at the Converstaion Club in St Albans, an ecumenical project set up for those staying at a local asylum hotel. Caritas Westminster have shared some examples of the lyrics penned during the workshop in St Albans:

World Refugee Day: Inter-Faith Video

On 20th June, we marked World Refugee Day. This year’s theme was ‘Hope Away From Home’, celebrating the welcome and integration of refugees in our communities where we support them in rebuilding their lives.

The Catholic community across England & Wales has shown great compassion in welcoming, supporting and integrating resettled families via the Community Sponsorship Scheme and the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, wholeheartedly embracing the Pope’s message to welcome the stranger. The actions of our community, including the ongoing support provided by CSAN members throughout the country, are demonstrative of our commitment to welcome and support refugees to the UK and into our communities. Together with other faith communities, we called upon the Government to listen to our community and ensure a fair and just asylum system, welcoming refugees and respecting their dignity. We stand #TogetherWithRefugees because this is #WhoWeAre are as a community of faith, something which is not recognised nor reflected in the current proposed Illegal Migration Bill.

‘You Can See Me, But I Don’t Exist’: JRS UK

JRS UK support destitute asylum seekers in London and work directly with their refugee friends, to whom they are committed to serve, to advocate and to accompany. This Refugee Week they celebrated their refugee friends by showcasing their poetry.

JRS’ refugee friends worked with poet Laila Sumpton to write poems to accompany photographs taken by photographer Alan Gignoux. The work is titled ‘You can see me, but I don’t exist’, highlighting the extended periods of uncertainty faced by many as they await a decision on their asylum claim. The photographs blur the faces of the individuals, illustrating the dehumanisation and marginalisation of asylum seekers in our society, whilst the accompanying poetry expresses the experiences of individuals – of being in limbo, of endless waiting, of feelings of loss, but also of community and of hope for the future.

The exhibition was launched at Stratford Library, East London on 19th June, with readings by JRS’s refugee friends, and was on display until 01 July. A further event was held on 23rd June at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, to mark the book launch of ‘You can see me, but I don’t exist’. Refugee friends from Birmingham and Manchester who contributed to the project were also in attendance alongside JRS refugee friends, all of whom performed their poetry to a packed gallery, followed by a great performance of Zimbabwean music.

As expressed by Laila (poet working with JRS), in a hostile system with dehumanising language, it is important to make space for refugees and those seeking sanctuary. It was inspiring to hear the stories of individuals from across the globe who have sought sanctuary in the UK, and the challenges they have faced, as well as the ongoing struggle for many given the hostile environment.

Equally moving were the stories of hope and community. One poem by a refugee friend from Birmingham expressed the importance of counting your blessings; recognising the blessings regardless of the hardships faced. These blessings can come in many forms – they are the people that they meet on their journey, the people in their community who welcome them, the support groups they work with, and the Church where they meet their brothers and sisters. One refugee friend likened the welcome of the community to the first touch of love, whilst another asked if we could be as warm in our hearts towards refugees as his mum’s hug. Such expressions further illustrate the significance of the role of the Church for refugees, and the importance of welcoming the stranger.

Refugee Week 2023 has come to an end, but our members continue in their commitment to support refugees, with support projects across England and Wales. We continue to reflect on Love the Stranger and put our #CompassionIntoAction. The Diocese of Plymouth and of Portsmouth held individual webinars during Refugee Week to reflect on how the Catholic community can best support refugees in our communities. The SJOG Homes for Ukraine team have also been conducting webinars throughout the month of June, talking about the successes of their project and the many Ukrainians they have supported since the project’s inception, as well as the continued need for sponsors. We hope to have further sessions, online and in-person, to promote Love the Stranger and reflect on how we can fulfil our obligation to love the stranger in the way God intends.

If you would like further information on how you can support refugees in your community, or if you wish to hold an information session or informal coffee morning, please reach out to your local Caritas agency or to CSAN. We would also really like to hear from you about any community projects, events, or stories, so that we may share with the Network and celebrate our communities.