Support comes in all sorts of ways as I have been reminded of on several occasions in the last few days.

This afternoon, I attended a school assembly at Stroud High School. At Christmas we received a wonderful selection of beautifully wrapped, prepared and marked shoe boxes of presents from the students. It was good to be able to thank them in person and to tell them a little about our work.

In the week before Easter, Gloucestershire Fire Service gave us a wonderful day at The Skillzone. Families and youngsters had a great time, were very well looked after and fed and it was organised incredibly well. It is fair to say that the “big toys” (fire engines etc) remain the favourite of young people whether young in fact or in mind!

Later that same week, Rachel Treweek, Bishop Of Gloucester, came and met with a number of people who wanted to mark the Easter events quietly. It was a special short service and a generous gift in a very busy week for her. (In addition she left us with a good number of Easter Eggs that were enjoyed by many people.)

In the last few days, we have become aware of the death of the previous Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham. As Bishop Rachel currently is, he was previously a Patron of GARAS and through his initiative we were able to start “Bishop’s Fund”, a fund that has been incredibly helpful and supportive to many GARAS clients facing destitution over the intervening years.


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Lenten Challenge

Thinking of giving something up for Lent?  Why not give up some of your financial freedom and live on asylum support rates during the build up to Easter?  Lent starts on Wednesday 1st March this year.  Asylum seekers living in Gloucester are often living in shared accommodation and if they are destitute at the time of their asylum application, can apply to the Home Office for subsistence whilst awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim.  The money paid is much less than that of mainstream benefits and can be a challenge to live on.  Why not give it a try, and donate the money you save over Lent, to GARAS or another organisation working with asylum seekers refugees across the globe?

A flat rate of £36.95 per person per week applies.  This covers: food; toiletries; clothing; washing equipment; laundry; travel; mobile phone.  This doesn’t include: utility bills; rent payments; work expenses (as asylum seekers are prohibited from working); petrol (asylum seekers aren’t allowed to have driving licences) or expenses for pets (no pets allowed in asylum supported accommodation).

Give it a try – live on £36.95 weekly per family member, and let us know how you get on.
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On Tuesday, in amongst all the Trump commotion, a report came out about the Compass Contract – the contract that the Home Office has with three Housing Providers: G4S, SERCO and ClearSprings to provide accommodation to asylum seekers whilst they go through the legal process of claiming asylum. This accommodation is across the UK and here in Gloucestershire, the provider is ClearSprings.

A little history lesson for context. In 1997 the new government started, what became known as the Dispersal Policy. This was a move to encourage local authorities across the UK to support asylum seekers within their communities away from the concentration in the South East of England.

Until 2002 this support was provided through the local Social Services and financial support was calculated at 70% of Income Support. In 2002 NASS was born – the National Asylum Support System. This moved the care from social services responsibility to the Home Office who subcontracted this to a number of different suppliers, frequently Local Authority Housing remained in use, in particular in the north of England and in Glasgow where large numbers of people were housed.

Here in the South West of England Gloucester, Swindon, Bristol and Plymouth (originally Exeter as well) were Dispersal areas and from 2002 ClearSprings was the provider of the accommodation.

So that is the background!

Over the past 15 years, clients have been Dispersed to Gloucester predominately from Cardiff as the Regional Hub for Home Office reasons. (Previous to arrival, people will have been housed temporarily in very basic accommodation in Cardiff.) The individuals and families who come to Gloucester have no choice where they come to live or with whom they will live. Properties are single sex or for families to share, there is now no consideration of faith, nationality or ethnicity.

As contracts have been renewed funds have got tighter and numbers grown and the turn over periods have got ever shorter. In this last round, the Local Authorities pulled out and G4S and SERCO took on the other areas of the country.

So what is our experience for our clients?

Properties have become increasingly grim over the years. The rapid turnover and lack of care has meant they are more more depressing. When a client moves out, the rooms are supposed to be cleaned but that is pretty flimsy. Even when there is a complete change of household there is no deep clean and I am not aware of a property being redecorated or refurbished or re-carpeted in many many years. Therefore each property gets sadder and sadder, scruffier and scruffier.

At the last contract there was no requirement to provide vacuum cleaners and that has made care of the properties very difficult for the occupants. Over the years most of the clients I have met want to take some pride in their homes but how can you when you don’t have the facility to keep them clean?

And then like any student accommodation there are the challenges of sharing Kitchens – who does the washing up? Who buys the milk?

So yes – mice, rats and bedbugs are a regular problem – see BBC link above.

And when boilers don’t work it takes weeks to get them fixed.

So imagine how that feels when you have travelled here to find safety and you think you will have somewhere to live at last in this city you know nothing about, you get shown into a house that is grubby and unloved? And you may even have to share a bedroom with someone you can’t even communicate with? How do you feel?

Why not contact your MP and ask them to include vacuum cleaners in the next COMPASS contract so asylum seekers can have some dignity and self respect? (& This may lead to fewer rats in the property.)


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Build bridges, tear down walls

In November 1989 I watched, with joy, as people pulled together to bring down the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany. The world’s reaction was of satisfaction that things could be changed and the process of reunification began. It wasn’t straight forward, but together Germany worked to make it work.

In 1993 the Bridge in Mostar was destroyed by the Bosnian Croatian army as a way to divide the people, emblematic of creating division and stopping the interaction that had been happening for hundreds of years. So significant was the bridge it was rebuilt in July 2004.

And yet here we are listening to a world leader committing to build huge walls and to insinuate differences in very real and frightening ways.

In the early 1930’s, lists were published in German cities of shops and businesses run by Jews ordering people not to do business with them. Lists of crimes committed by immigrants; anti-Muslim rhetoric; reintroduce torture; the possibility of a register of Muslims; reducing women’s rights; removing LGBT rights… So how do we react? What if the citizens of Germany had refused to change their shopping habits and continued to support the Jewish community in that way? What if everyone had taken to wearing Stars?

So what are we do? We always have to start right in our homes and communities. We have to maintain relationships and rebuild where necessary. And we have to recognise in each other that which unites us rather than what divides. Talk to each other, eat together, laugh and cry together. One thing I have learnt above everything else in my life at GARAS is we have a common humanity of love and care for our families and when we sit down to eat together, we learn so much.

This may appear to be a series of random thoughts, if so I’m sorry. But maybe as we watch and listen to the unfolding news and become depressed about it we have to take positive, caring action to help make things better and to do our bit to keep the world as safe as possible.

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Why teenagers?

Yesterday I listened as a teenager told me that the final straw, in his country of origin, was when he was asked to wear a suicide vest.

It was time to go and his poor, widowed mother had to lose her only son and find a way to get him out, because what else could she do?

Earlier this month I stood in Srebinica and heard first- hand the stories of some of the few survivors of the genocide that was committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995. Atrocities were carried out on everyone, but it was the men and teenage boys who were identified as a bigger risk and over 8,000 were murdered. They were murdered because they are “dangerous” by being male. They are seen as being the future of the opposition. This is replicated in so many conflicts across the world.

So when politicians and the tabloid press complain that it is teenage boys that turn up seeking asylum and not “cute” babies and toddlers, they need to remember that vulnerability comes in a number of forms and may be precisely because you are a teenage boy! They need our protection not our derision.


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Book Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English

If you’re looking for a Christmas present for someone or simply after some light reading, may I point you in the direction of Shappi Khorsandi’s touching childhood memoirs, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English?  It’s not a new release (first published in 2009) but remains as relevant and insightful today as before.

Born in Tehran and moving to the UK when she was in pre-school, Shappi and her family ended up in the asylum system here.  A true story from the well known stand up comic, it is moving and poignant.  You get to see life in the UK as an immigrant through a child’s eyes.

It’s easy to read, yet Khorsandi doesn’t shy away from brutalities experienced by Iranians living under heavy religious rule.  Family love, political conflict, growing up bi-culturally.  Humorous and moving, this excellent book has it all.


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November Events Roundup

There are several events throughout November across the county that you may be interested in.  First up, on Friday 11th at Nature in Art, Twigworth, is a Puddings Evening.  Come and eat pudding for a good cause!  (Tickets £5, available from GARAS’ office.)  The Stroud Book Festival has 2 events: Echo Chamber (11th-13th) and Hassan Akkad’s Personal Exodus (Saturday 12th), both in Stroud.  Gloucestershire County Council would like to meet anyone interested in fostering young asylum seekers, on Wednesday 23rd in Newent, whilst on Saturday 26th Samara Levy will be talking about the charity that she set up to help refugees in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, hosted by St Andrew’s Church, Churchdown.

More details of all of these events can found on the events page of our website, by clicking here.

Looking forward to the New Year, if you speak another language and would be interested in training as an interpreter in a therapy session, please follow this link to the ‘Latest’ page on our website for further information.

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