Ayham Alsuleman, Programme Coordinator at Reset Communities and Refugees, on the potential of communities to create lasting social change.

5 minute read

The first communities I ever worked with were back in Syria, where I’m from. I’d studied economics and HR management before working on development projects for charities and NGOs, helping to identify local people’s needs.

And then the war started.

That’s when I switched to humanitarian response – in particular, looking at how communities could respond to the crisis. One of the first projects I was involved with was opening a local school as a collective shelter for internally displaced people in Damascus.

I ended up joining various peace-building programmes, and began working with the UN. Not long after, I had an opportunity to come the UK to do a Masters degree in humanitarian action, with a focus on forced migration.

My studies then led me to working for a refugee resettlement charity in London and I also began volunteering with the Herne Hill Welcome Refugees, a Community Sponsorship Group in south London. That’s when I heard about Reset. I’ve been here for a year now – and I’m helping grow Community Sponsorship of refugees across the UK.

It’s been quite a journey.

Why community sponsorship

I only discovered the concept of Community Sponsorship  during my Masters. In the UK, the idea still feels quite new. (It was introduced by the Home Office in July 2016 as part of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme, with a goal of resettling 23,000 people by 2020.) 

In Canada, it’s been around for 40 years. And it works. Since 1979, over 300,000 refugees have been resettled successfully using this approach.

How does it work? In practical terms, Community Sponsorship Groups take on the responsibility of welcoming a vulnerable refugee family who’s being resettled to the UK. They welcome them and support them, as they build a new life, for one year – by which time the family should ideally be independent and self-sufficient.

But on a deeper level, Community Sponsorship is much more than the practicalities. It’s about connecting people.

And while it’s the communities who are supporting the refugees, there are lots of benefits on both sides. Here in the West, with our increasingly fast modern lifestyles, it’s very easy to get trapped in a busy schedule focused on our job and daily commitments and lose the connection with our local community. Often, we go back to our house to sleep and eat. Sometimes, we don’t even know who is living next door.

“On a deeper level, Community Sponsorship is about connecting people.”

With Community Sponsorship, everyone comes together. Suddenly, you’re having conversations with someone you’ve always seen on the street but would never previously talk to. You are talking to the local shop on the corner of your street, you are approaching your local council and local job centre. With Community Sponsorship you start building local connections with the place you are living in and form new friendships.

That stronger sense of togetherness, which comes from Community Sponsorship, is so important – not just for resettling a refugee family, but for the whole community.

Time to Reset

How do Groups form? In practice, Community Sponsorship Groups come in all shapes and sizes. Some Groups are based around pre-existing connections like a sports team or a book club or a faith congregation. Others are formed by people who live in the same area. Once the Group is formed, they need to submit an application to the Home Office, which includes plans for the refugee family’s accommodation, schooling, and language training.

At Reset, we support Groups all the way through this process. We can help review their application, give them online training and support, and also lots of materials to enable groups to complete this work on their own. We travel a lot across the UK to upskill these Groups on how to work with refugees. We connect them with other existing Groups and key organisations. We also provide advice and support groups after they receive the family. That often means training them in cultural awareness, and how to support and work with refugees. We can connect them with the right people and resources.

Bringing the different Groups together is also important. We visit and connect Groups from around the UK so they can talk to each other, and learn from others’ experiences.

By supporting each Group, working with our partners across UK, talking to local authorities and the Home Office, Reset aims to be the engine in the middle of this whole scheme – connecting and mobilising resources across the country.

Everything we do is designed to grow this scheme nationally – and provide better integration outcomes.

That can mean focusing on small but very important details. For example, on one side we worked closely last year with the Home Office to help simplify and shorten the current application forms, and speed up the application process. On the other side, we developed resources to help Groups understand how they can support a refugee to drive in the UK.

And it always means looking at the bigger picture.

Planning ahead, we’re looking to build an infrastructure within civil society to continue this scheme without any intervention from other charities. In future, we hope these become totally community-led projects – a legacy that people hand on to other generations as time goes on.

Refugee key facts

The world is experiencing its most serious refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 21m people fleeing their country of origin, and over 34,000 people displaced each day.

1.3m refugees have so far arrived in the EU. In the UK, we currently provide sanctuary to around 16,000 people per year. 

Making a difference

What Canada shows us is that using communities as a response to the refugee crisis isn’t just a nice idea – it can really work. All the indicators suggest that refugees resettled through Community Sponsorship are more likely to integrate into the community quicker, learn English quicker, get employment quicker, and be able to be active members of their new community.

This is incredibly important – especially as we’re talking about vulnerable families. The resettled families are a very small proportion of the refugee population, who have been identified by the UN as urgent because there may be, for example, a threat to their safety or no medical facilities available to them.

“All the indicators suggest that refugees resettled through community sponsorship are more likely to integrate into the community quicker, learn English quicker, get employment quicker, and be able to be active members of their new community.”

Beyond the life-changing impact on vulnerable families, I also believe that the scheme gives something very valuable to local people in the UK.

When we’re sitting in our living rooms watching TV or scrolling down Twitter, it’s easy to feel like we can’t do anything about something like the refugee crisis. We feel powerless. But this is a practical way to take action. It may not be the whole solution – you’re not solving the Syrian conflict or the issues in Iraq – but you are helping.

And as a member of this community, this country, as a person living on earth, I believe we have a collective responsibility to respond.

It is an amazing thing to help a refugee family come over from a difficult situation, to a place where they can live and have freedom, and where their children can access schools.

On a very personal level and in terms of wider systems change, Community Sponsorship is an incredibly powerful way for people to act.

To find out more about Reset and Community Sponsorship, visit: https://resetuk.org

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