Smethwick High Street looked utterly dreary.
It was a wet and misty Thursday afternoon and I was on my way to visit Brushstrokes, a charity of whom I’d never heard until a friend of mine at Sandwell Churches Link suggested I visit to see the work they did.
As I navigated my way through the culturally and ethnically diverse and impoverished streets of Smethwick to locate St Philips Centre where the charity was based, I was reminded of the fact that many people live in a completely different world to me, right on my doorstep. I felt a sharp challenge in my spirit towards my ignorance of the obvious needs in our region.
It was merely a sign of the challenge to come.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a friendly lady who was busy laying out tables of food parcels ready to give out to those who had need and it was immediately clear that the work that went on here was extremely hands on.
Climbing the stairs and entering the small reception area, the extent of Brushstrokes’ involvement in the lives of newly arrived asylum seekers in Smethwick became even more apparent. Sitting in a chair, her walking frame in front of her, was an elderly Arab woman, dressed in her black hijab (headscarf) and jilbab (body garment). She sat alone and looked weary, becoming increasingly frustrated as she tried to gesture and communicate her needs to the young receptionist in front of her. How many times had she been in this position since her arrival in the UK, I wondered? How many people had she been misunderstood by on her long and complicated journey to Smethwick, England?
It turned out that in addition to food, she needed help with her application for housing asylum as well as her bus fare back to the temporary accommodation in which she was staying. She really did possess nothing and I watched as one of the centre’s volunteers made sure she received the food vouchers she so desperately needed and made an appointment to help her with her housing application.
“Food is just one of the things we provide here at Brushstrokes,” explained Project Manager Teresa as we sat down in the empty ESOL classroom upstairs in the parish centre. “The needs of asylum seekers and refugees are extremely varied since they all come from different backgrounds and circumstances.”
What is an Asylum Seeker?
Last year, 32,414 people applied for asylum in the UK. When an asylum seeker arrives in Dover, they most often find themselves being taken to the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) headquarters in Croydon to ‘claim asylum’. Their fate is then completely in the hands of the NASS, run by the Home Office, who decide where they will be sent in the country. They are then driven to temporary accommodation in their allotted location (which, despite the many negative media stereotypes, is not paid for by the local council and is nearly always located in ‘hard to let’ properties, where other native people do not want to live). A legal process then begins to establish their right to asylum. If successful, they usually get 30 months to live in their temporary accommodation and are given £30 per week to live on. After the 30 months are up, they’re given 28 days to claim any benefits they need in order to live somewhere else.
“It’s almost impossible to claim and receive any benefits within 28 days, especially for refugees who often don’t speak English. Additionally, many have fled countries where women and girls are not permitted to go to school and they are therefore completely illiterate. There’s no way they’re able to fill in complicated paperwork to ensure they have safe places to live.”
This is where the work of Brushstrokes becomes invaluable. Through the work of staff and volunteers, Brushstrokes help asylum seekers in the process of applying for housing and other benefits, as well as teaching ESOL and helping the family to integrate into society by finding school places for children and employment for any adults in the family. The latter is often an utterly demoralising process for all involved. Many asylum seekers arrive in the UK with real qualifications but are forced to take on menial jobs as any retraining opportunities in the UK are limited to those under 40 years of age. “Investing into people over 40 is viewed as a waste,” explains Teresa, a note of genuine frustration in her tone.
“We recently helped an Afghan man who had claimed asylum here because his life had been threatened in his home country. In Afghanistan, he was a qualified United Nations Interpreter. Yet here in Smethwick, he drives a taxi as this is the only means by which he can support his family.”
I reflected on how dispiriting it must feel to work so hard to qualify as a professional, only to have to leave your home, take on a job well below your education level and skillset and live in a country where many people view you as an outsider, purely to stay alive.
“So many of the new arrivals to Smethwick are incredibly lonely. They don’t know anybody here and have often witnessed the loss of family members in the countries they have fled”, explains Teresa. “Here at Brushstrokes, we train both Christian and Muslim volunteers to befriend new arrivals by visiting hostels and connecting them to services so they can avoid feeling isolated.”
As well as working with asylum seekers, Brushstrokes also work with women who have been sexually trafficked into the region. There is a growing number of Eastern European women who are trafficked here, find themselves pregnant by their abusers and subsequently dumped by their pimps, with nowhere to go and no one to help them. Brushstrokes helps these women in the same way it helps asylum seekers, by finding them safe-houses and referring them to partner charities who can support them in their basic physical and emotional needs.
Don’t forget the kids
It is often the children of asylum seekers that are overlooked by the media. It’s easier to air images of healthy-looking young men camping out in Calais than it is to focus on the true horror of some of the atrocities asylum seekers have been exposed to. Often children have witnessed murder and torture by the time they arrive in the UK and many school teachers comment on how graphic some of the disclosures are from the children of asylum seekers they teach. Brushstrokes helps these children by working with local schools to provide one-to-one counselling to help them come to terms with the trauma they have experienced.
It’s important to understand the impact the work of Brushstrokes has had on people’s lives. One Zimbabwean lady, who had been involved in politically opposing the Mugabe regime, was forced to flee for her life with her 6-year old daughter. She arrived in Smethwick and stayed in a Home Office hostel. It was there that she was visited by Brushstrokes and started attending the centre for food and support. She was later moved to the other side of Birmingham but came back to Brushstrokes to inform Teresa that she had found safe-housing and schooling for her daughter. As a result of the impact of Brushstrokes’ work on her life, she began to volunteer at the centre herself, supporting new arrivals and teaching ESOL.
This is just one of many success stories Teresa shared with me. As a result, this tiny, relatively unknown local charity recently received £500,000 worth of lottery funding to help them continue the work they do, as well as countless awards from local and national governing bodies who recognise the impact Brushstrokes is having on the lives of asylum seekers in our region.
As I always am when I visit charities like Brushstrokes, I found myself deeply humbled by the Christian love in action before my eyes. This incredible charity lives out daily Jesus’ command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Is it any wonder that such instructions came from our Lord’s mouth? After all, Jesus Himself knew what it was to seek asylum, fleeing a mass genocide of babies under the oppressive rule of Herod and claiming refuge in Egypt when He was 2-years old. Isaiah also echoes the cries of Moabite refugees when he writes: “Defend us against our enemies. Protect us from their relentless attack. Do not betray us now that we have escaped. Let our refugees stay among you. Hide them from our enemies until the terror is past” (Isaiah 16:3-4).
Last year, Brushstrokes lived out this scripture by extending hospitality and help to 2000 people in Smethwick. 175 people learned to speak English through one of Brushstrokes’ ESOL courses. 500 people benefited from food parcels. The charity now employees 2 full-time and 7 part-time workers to meet the increasing demands they face. Yet the need remains great. More volunteers are always required; sympathetic people who can support new asylum seekers by befriending them, teaching English or supporting them practically.
Most of the asylum seekers Brushstrokes works with are resilient, brave and hard-working people. They need our support, not our judgement. If you think you have something to offer in reaching out to them, please contact email@example.com.
On behalf of Love Black Country.