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Coming together to welcome refugees in Witney

16th Dec 2016

Winnie Byanyima at Asylum Sounds in Witney

As Oxfam publishes a report on resettlement of Syrians which shows that less than 3% of five million Syrian refugees have been proactively resettled in rich countries, this blog by Luci Ashbourne describing the way in which people of Witney have come together to welcome refugees in their community is truly inspirational.

In the autumn of 2015, like many others, my consciousness, frustration and anger regarding the unprecedented refugee crisis unfolding across the world was acute. With it came a sense of total disempowerment, heartbreak and confusion. Why weren't rich governments doing as much as they could to help? Why would tabloid newspapers feed people's fear with xenophobic propaganda instead of compassion for others suffering more than we could ever understand? How could we forsake people like this?

The Gandhi quote, 'Be the change you wish to see in the world' often floats through my mind when I feel powerless and desperate to do something. This seed grew until a couple of likeminded friends started to collect donations in my hometown of Witney in Oxfordshire to deliver to the camps in France. Finally there was something practical to focus this energy on and so the grassroots group Witney Refugee Action was conceived. I took on the lead role in November 2015 and we began planning fundraisers, collections and advocating to bring attention to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.

As part of the government's Syrian Resettlement Scheme, West Oxfordshire District Council were in the process of welcoming several Syrian families to Witney. This came with cultural, practical, social and economic complexities, many of which were unforeseen because it was the first time Witney had received resettled refugees. Oxford-based charity Asylum Welcome used their experience and knowledge to help as much as they could. It became clear that many local faith groups, schools and refugee action groups were keen to support the process, and a network meeting was held find homes on the private market to rent for the refugees, 'befrienders', language teachers, and donations to help furnish those homes and welcome the families as warmly as possible.

My role was to coordinate furnishing the homes the Syrian refugees moved into, using Asylum Welcome's 'Adopt a Room' scheme. The idea was that each group could 'adopt' a particular room and source all the items needed as a small team and bring it all back together as a collaborative whole. The response was remarkable - within no time all of the rooms were taken on and within an hour every item had been pledged for the rooms adopted by Witney Refugee Action. We were astounded to say the least. Indeed, there were schools and faith groups that, when they saw all rooms had been furnished, offered to put together age-appropriate books to teach English as a foreign language for each child, welcome packs of food and toiletries, vouchers for trips out and much, much more.

This snowball effect continued with more potential teachers, 'befrienders' and offers of practical help coming in constantly. My father kindly helped a Syrian family put up their shed, which was not only of benefit to them but also challenged, in a positive way, his somewhat Daily Mail shaped perceptions of what it means to be a refugee. Throughout all of this I was in awe of the tireless work that Asylum Welcome carry out on a daily basis, and so I quickly followed up on the success of this community engagement with a fundraising event at a large town centre location. I identified a team of competent, enthusiastic and dedicated individuals from the community and we began planning Witney's first ever world music and arts event, 'Asylum Sounds'. The event evolved into something beyond any of our expectations and included bands, DJs, food, crafts, artwork and poetry - indeed poet and compère Owen Collins wrote a bespoke poem inspired by the adopt-a-room scheme which captures the essence of it all beautifully:

Hundreds of people came through the door to enjoy the day, including all of the resettled Syrian families, who brought along food to share with us. The children joined in with the activities, crafts and even serenaded us with a song on stage. Winnie Byanyima, the chief executive of Oxfam International, also attended and spoke powerfully to enable residents to understand the wider political picture. We raised around £2,500 in total, but we also raised spirits and awareness, formed connections and experienced a deep pride in what our hometown can achieve when we come together for a common purpose.

By Luci Ashbourne, resident of Witney who helped set up the Witney Refugee Action Group and organised the town's first ever world music festival 'Asylum Sounds'.