By Callum McKenna (Captain)
Hythe Salvation Army Church & Community Centre
It was a fairly ordinary, drizzly Sunday afternoon in August 2019. The dining room was buzzing with chatter as we shared stories about our families and our aspirations. Empty plates cluttered the table, the only evidence remaining of the epic Sunday lunch we’d just devoured. Our kids were running around the house playing hide and seek. Copious amounts of coffee were flowing. Completely normal. As we sat together, the extraordinariness of the situation came alive to me. Five days ago, my family and I were complete strangers to the family whose home we were sat in and yet, on that Sunday afternoon, I realised the incredible privilege that comes from being welcomed.
It’s experiences such as these that have been typical of our Community Sponsorship journey in Hythe as we’ve seen extraordinary kindness, generosity and hospitality become something of the norm. We’re a fairly small and sleepy town of about 14,000 inhabitants on the Kent Coast where, as the town slogan reminds us, ‘the countryside meets the sea’. It was, however, as if many members of our community were awoken from their slumber in the summer of 2015. As the global migration crisis, and particularly the plight of those fleeting conflict in Syria, was brought to the world’s attention, we became aware with heightened sensitivity that, just a few miles from where we were, across the channel were hundreds of migrants and refugees in the ‘Jungles’ of Northern France. People were desperate to help. We collected clothes and food which were transported to Calais. We raised money for a local refugee charity and volunteered with them. We held awareness evenings. Yet, all of these things felt like they were just scratching the surface; we felt we could do more.
It was then that we heard about Community Sponsorship and realised that we could make a significant and lasting impact in the lives of one refugee family who we could welcome to our community through providing the housing and some of the support they might need to rebuild their lives in the U.K. It seemed like an incredible opportunity, but a fairly impossible task to achieve. Where would we get the house from? What about the finance? There couldn’t possibly be the people in our small town who could make this thing happen! However, these doubts were fairly quickly proven to be unfounded as people’s generosity and their skills and willingness to put them to good use soon became evident. There’s a sense that we doubted that we could it because none of us were ‘professionals’ in refugee resettlement, but we realised that we were experts in our local community; we knew our community, we loved our community, and we thought it would be the perfect place for a refugee family to come to.
Fast forward 18 months, and it’s easy to see the naivety we had in thinking that Community Sponsorship would change the lives of a refugee family. I’m sure that the lives of the family we welcomed in 2019 have been changed but, perhaps more significantly, our community has been changed by their arrival for the better. Not long after they arrived, I remember getting a puzzled phone-call from a volunteer who had been at the house with the family’s Mum. There had been lots of cooking going on, and a sense of some excitement in the air, but with the absence of an interpreter we couldn’t quite figure out why. Later in the day the penny dropped; Mum was helping the PTA baking up a storm for the cake sale at her kid’s school to raise money for Children in Need. Dad has since volunteered to help teach English to and mentor local unaccompanied asylum seekers. During the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, the family were making meals for their key-worker neighbours and making sure others had the shopping they needed. ‘Typical Refugees!’ I’ve often thought, ‘Coming to our country, and making a difference in our communities!’.
Our journey of Community Sponsorship has shown us that it’s something that can happen in any community if people step out and seek to make a difference. It’s also shown us that all kinds of differences will be made, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways, as a result. Community Sponsorship is about humans helping humans, families helping families and communities helping communities.