Asylum Link Merseyside: Welcoming the stranger

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

In November, more than 100 delegates gathered at LACE to consider how best to welcome asylum seekers or refugees. The conference, led by Asylum Link Merseyside (ALM), was an opportunity to share good practice and develop confidence in caring for the needs of our new residents.

Representatives from 46 organisations – many from the new ‘dispersal areas’ where the need for provision is growing – had come together to learn from ALM’s 16 years’ experience.

The screenwriter Jimmy McGovern opened the conference by suggesting that Antony Gormley’s iron men on Crosby beach would reach out and welcome the newcomer, those desperate migrants fleeing war, persecution, torture and hardship, their lives unravelling in the face of harsh resistance in parts of Europe. Ewan Roberts, centre manager at ALM, explained how the charity had evolved over the years, always trying to meet the growing demands. He said that almost one person in a hundred was at risk of violence or persecution and that most fled to poor neighbouring countries. The UK, a relatively wealthy country, makes asylum difficult. Ewan ended with an invitation to give ALM a call and come and visit.

Bridie Sharkey, a volunteer teacher and ALM trustee, took delegates through the new Council of Europe ‘toolkit’, Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants. These materials are designed to help non-specialists to support recently arrived asylum seekers and refugees. Bridie urged delegates to look at the materials online (www. coe.int/lang-refugees) and to join a growing, compassionate, kind-hearted force across Europe. Workshops on these materials will be offered at ALM in the new year.

Most moving were the testimonies of three courageous students from ALM’s English classes – Laila, Alganesh and Racheed. They spoke, in English, of their fear, loneliness and isolation on first arriving in Liverpool and of the courage it took to venture into ALM, and of the eventual enjoyment and confidence gained from mastering the language.

Delegates split into three groups to discuss casework problem-solving provision, the evolution of the ALM shop and the importance of inclusive football to mental and physical well-being. The engaging plenary session was chaired by Bill Chambers, the ALM’s chair of trustees.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, author and screenwriter, and himself a volunteer ALM caseworker, gave the closing address, indicating how we all have much to offer and how volunteering and making someone else happy provides a strong source of satisfaction. ALM’s Women Together choir concluded the conference with a rousing, multi-lingual rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ – a fitting ending to an inspiring, encouraging and, above all, compassionate day.