Richard Kerr-Wilson shares how the South Cheltenham Churches realised their goal of sponsoring a family of refugees.
“It all started when Bishop Rachel forwarded a letter from the Home Office about Full Community Sponsorship of vulnerable refugees, encouraging local people to consider sponsoring a family. A meeting of six South Cheltenham churches had already been arranged, with Adele from Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (GARAS) speaking about the work of GARAS. We took advantage of the occasion to leave a piece of paper on each seat and asked people to write their names down if they were interested in getting involved.
Following this, a steering group with members from all six churches was set up, and an application for sponsorship submitted. It took about a year of work and liaison with the Home Office, and with support from GARAS, before the application was accepted. After that, progress was quicker. It was only about six weeks before an appropriate family was identified by the UNHCR and agreed to come. In November 2017, a Syrian family of six came to Cheltenham from Jordan, where they had been living for the previous four years: a grandmother, mother, father and three children. The family have refugee status in this country, which gives them five years residency rights. GARAS have been brilliant – they do the ‘official bit’ and we do the ‘social bit’. The police also generously donated a bike, helmet and lock, and recently the family has managed to buy a car.
The children have been in school since January and are settling in well. Two of them recently started football training, thanks to Leckhampton Rovers and a small grant from the Home Office, which they really enjoy. The adults are attending English classes and are making excellent progress. They no longer have to rely on the oldest child to act as an interpreter. The possibility of a job has come through for one of the adults, which is also very encouraging. The family are very hospitable and we are warmly welcomed whenever we go to visit.”
Richard said: “There are 12 or 13 Syrian families in Cheltenham now, so there is a local network of support from fellow Syrians. People have been incredibly generous in giving to support the family. We have only recently learnt the amount of housing benefit that will be available, but we expect that we will need to supplement this to cover the rent. Under the Home Office scheme, integration support is provided for one year and housing for two, and we will of course stay in contact with them after that time.
When you hear their stories, and what they have been through in Syria, you can’t believe what people can do to each other… and that these families have come through still able to live a normal life.”
When asked if they would consider taking on another family, Richard said: “Our group has now a little experience of the sponsorship scheme. Our biggest problem is getting accommodation for the project – we need a private landlord who would be prepared to lease at a slightly lower rent, but with the guarantee that their property would be well looked after.”
If you are interested to learn more about the practical process of becoming a community sponsor for a family, or if you are a landlord or employer who would be willing to help, Richard would be pleased to hear from you. He is available on