A sanctuary in Birmingham for people with nothing.


Sister Margaret Walsh IJS, who runs a drop in centre in Birmingham for newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, St Chad’s Sanctuary, says she has observed that the environment they arrive into  “is much more hostile now” compared to when the project began eight years ago. Describing it as “very upsetting” Sr Margaret says that the hopes of those who arrive in the UK tend to be bitterly dashed: “These people have struggled for months or even years to get here. When you first meet them, they’re so relieved and excited, but gradually they get worn down by the system. There seems to be a deliberate policy to make the process of applying for asylum so unattractive in order to put people off. They come thinking it’s the promised land and end up so crushed and defeated. That’s the hard thing for us – holding the dream with them.”

Sister Margaret recalls how St Chad’s Sanctuary came into being: “I  got  a  very  strong  feeling  that  there  needed  to  be  a  place  in  Birmingham  offering    hospitality  to  asylum  seekers,  especially   those  who no  longer had recourse  to public  funds;   they  came  for  help  to  the  Refugee  Council  which,  at  that  time,  was  located  very  close  to  St. Chad’s  Cathedral. When  they  got  that  dreaded  letter  from  the  Home  Office  giving  them  a  negative  decision,  they  went  into  the  city  in  the  early  morning,  usually  on  foot  and  lined  up  outside  the  building  ’til  the  doors  opened  at  9.30. They  stood  there  no  matter  what  the  weather;  if  they  took  shelter  under  a  nearby  bridge  they  lost  their  place  in  the  queue.  They  were  finally  given  an  appointment  for  later  on  in  the  day.    In  the  meantime,  most  had  nowhere  to  go  but  continued  to wait  along the  street,  often  with  young  children.   The  Salvation  Army  gave us the use of a place  which  is  located  behind  the  Cathedral  and  we  named  it  St.  Chad’s  Sanctuary.    Since  then,  this  building  has  seen  some  action!  At  least  120  nationalities  have  been  welcomed –  most  speaking  different  languages  and few  speaking  English.”

Queues form every day outside the Sanctuary. The people often arrive initially into an immigration hostel in the city  – with nothing.  They are then directed to St Chad’s and they cross the city on foot in need of help. Says Sr Margaret:  “Many are asylum seekers who have recently arrived from situations of great violence and persecution.   The majority are from Sudan, Iran and Eritrea.  Some are still wearing the clothes they wore during their long and often dangerous journey to Britain. They really are the picture of misery, often made worse by our seasonal weather when they walk from the immigration hostel to the Sanctuary, sometimes carrying young children, a journey of 45 minutes – when they know the way!”

St. Chad’s Sanctuary relies on donations, both financial and practical, from the local community – individuals, parishes and schools as well as the efforts of more than 100 volunteers, who Sr Margaret pays tribute to:  “Since  we  began  recording,   we have  given  out  nearly  12,000  pairs  of   jeans,  over  10,202  pairs  of  shoes  and  about  34,000  tins of  fish  and  19,550  kgs  of  rice,  5,590  bottles  of  shampoo  and  6,270  toothbrushes!  The  hard  work  of  shifting,  lifting,  sorting,  distributing  clothes  and  registering  refugees  is  done  by  volunteers.  At the  moment  about  150  people  visit  each  week  for  practical  items  and  a  further  170  for  English  Language  classes  a  few  times  a  week.    Most  do  not  speak  English  and  are  eager  to   learn  in  order  to  make  their  way  in  Britain  and  as  a  step  towards  finding  work  when   they  are  allowed  to  do  so.  More  than  we  can  accommodate  arrive  each  day,    so  they  have  to  wait  outside until  we  have  space  –  we  pass  out  stools  they  can  sit  on  and  large  umbrellas  when  it  rains! It  is  particularly  difficult  and  challenging  when  several   mothers  arrive  with  pushchairs  and  young  children.   Most  people  who  come  to  us  are  either  completely  destitute  or  are  surviving  on  about  £5  a  day  –  a  return  bus  fare  would  cost  £4.40.  Many  walk  several  miles  to  get  to  us.  They  are  used  to  walking  but  it  is  particularly  difficult  when  it  is  raining  or  cold  and  especially  when  they  haven’t got suitable  clothing  or  footwear.    They  arrive  at  our  door  dripping  wet  and  shivering.  Needless  to  say,  they  often  have  coughs  and  colds.  We  try  to  give  bus  passes  to  those  who  have  to  walk  farthest  and  we  also  have  a  bicycle  project.”




The top floor of the building is given over entirely to donated racks of clothes where people can go and select items. Sr Margaret adds:  “The Latin for destitute translates as ‘abandoned’ and this is much closer to their reality. In fact, I believe that they are the most ignored and nameless people in our society.  We continue to be amazed by their resilience in the face of so much hopelessness since they have very little hope of anything better anytime soon. Life and its opportunities are just passing them by. Yet we are constantly humbled by their graciousness and their strong faith and trust in a loving God. ‘Inshallah’ is a word we have come to know very well at St. Chad’s Sanctuary.”

The practical difficulty of teaching English from scratch is hard. “It can be very challenging work because in the same group we may well have students who have never been to school and others who have university degrees and a lot of professional experience.  They are always very kind and helpful towards one another and that makes our task much easier.”

Many who arrive are professionally qualified in their own countries: “Just this morning I was helping a pilot who turned up,” said Sr Margaret.  “We frequently have doctors, dentists and pharmacists.” Another community project Sr Margaret established in the Midlands,  Brushstrokes, has a programme to help suitably qualified overseas healthcare professionals find work in the UK and Sr Margaret frequently refers people who turn up at her door to  Brushstrokes, which has now  been going nearly twenty years and supports asylum seekers, refugees and newcomers from over 65 countries.

At St Chad’s Sanctuary, Sr Margaret, now in her seventies,   is still the full time, voluntary manager. She is very glad of the support of other religious, with six different Congregations currently involved : “They are brilliant volunteers, completely committed. I love to see religious turn up, with their reliability and commitment.”  A new aspect of the Sanctuary’s work, which began a couple of months ago,  is helping to educate the children of those who arrive.   Many struggle to find places in city schools or their families are stuck in temporary accommodation making it difficult to secure a place.

The Sanctuary winds down slightly in August, to give volunteers time off.  But when asked if she would also get a break, Sr Margaret is hesitant: “I’m not too sure at the moment.  Things are still busy.  The building next door is being converted into luxury flats and there will be a lot going on around here in the coming weeks.” She is not holding out hope of being able to retire anytime soon.

The irony of luxury flats going up next to the place where the most destitute in the city flock,  leaves Sr Margaret unashamed to say what she needs:  “There is always space in our bank account.  We are struggling to get core funding, to cover our basic running costs and we are facing refusal after refusal. The bills need to be paid and we can’t get in the big money that we really need.”

“We  sometimes  only  see  people  once  or  twice  because  they  are  frequently  moved  to  elsewhere  in  the  country  or  may  have  been  deported: the  hostile  environment!” Reflecting on the encounters she has had over the years at the Sanctuary:  “They are the most heart-broken people I have ever met.  Not only are they grieving for their families and homelands but they are totally bewildered in a country and a culture so different from their own.  Not understanding what they are saying may seem an insurmountable obstacle but communicating with the heart is the same in every language.  More than anything, they need to be met with compassion and with a deep respect for their dignity as human beings….. As  time  goes  on,  we  are  welcoming  back  those  we  helped  in  the  early  days  and  many  are  now  volunteers  at  the  Sanctuary.  They  often  tell  us  that  we  are  their  only  family  in  the  UK.  When  I  started  this  work  they  used  to  call  me  Mother;  now  it   is  Grandma!    Always  they  want  to  give  a  helping  hand.    They  are  full  of  gratitude.  It  is  very  humbling  to  be  part  of  their  journey.”

For more details, visit: http://www.stchadssanctuary.com/

“For  I  was  hungry  and  you  gave  me  food,  I  was  thirsty  and  you  gave  me  drink,  I  was  a  stranger  and  you made  me  welcome,  lacking  clothes  and  you  clothed  me,  sick  and  you  visited  me,  in  prison  and  you  came  to  see  me.”   Matt  25;  35

A Trip to the Dentist

Helen M’s experience of taking one of our English Beginners students (Mohammed from Ethiopia) to the dental hospital.

1) Mohammed had had a terrible toothache for a few days following a failed tooth extraction at his own dentist. They had referred him to a special dental clinic in Cradley Heath for the extraction because they said it would be quicker than the dental hospital, but when I called the Cradley Heath clinic, they could see him the next day but only for a consultation. They said he might have to wait weeks for the extraction, plus it was very far for him by bus.  So we called the dental hospital in Edgbaston (old Pebble Mill site between Bristol Rd and Pershore Rd) – there is no longer a dental hospital in the city centre apparently.

2) You can’t go to the dental hospital, it seems, without a referral letter from your own dentist, even if you are in extreme pain. The dental hospital told me to get a referral via 111. I have since heard that you can just turn up and wait to be seen, but I probably wouldn’t risk it.

3) So we called 111, with me explaining the situation and saying that his English was very basic, and Mohammed was assessed over the phone with an Amharic translator that they provided. (It took about 30 mins to get one and they had to call us back once they’d got the translator). They said we could be referred to the dental hospital but only with a referral letter from his dentist in Handsworth. Sorry, I can’t remember if the 111 doctor called the dentist to ask for this letter or me, but it was ready within an hour and we went to collect it.

4) The 111 doctor said not to bother going to the dental hospital that day as it was late, but to go at 9am the next day. We turned up at 9am on Friday but once the receptionist realised Mohammed did not speak good English, they told us that he would not be seen and we should have booked a translator. (I thought that 111 had done this for us with a specific appointment time of 9am, but this was not true – I needed to have done it). We had to leave, booking a translator with reception for Monday morning. This was now a specific appointment for Mohammed, because the translator is booked. If you don’t have a specific appointment time, you may have to wait 2-3 hours as it’s a ticketing system. I guess any patient who didn’t need a translator would have to do this, because we only had a specific appointment given to us for the Monday because they booked us a translator. (Poor Mohammed had to go back home in terrible pain for the weekend, although we did get ibuprofen which he said helped more than the paracetamol he’d been taking. He didn’t know the difference).

5) Crucial part: You need to call the dental hospital at least 24 hours before if you need a translator as they have to book one. They don’t guaranteethat someone will be there, so even if you book 24 hours before, you have to call early in the morning on the day (for me 7.30am) to check they have got someone booked. They said this can take more than 24 hours sometimes, but we were lucky and they did get someone, and when we turned up on the Monday at 9am, the translator was already there.

6.) Even though we had a booked appointment and the translator was there and presumably being paid for by the hospital, we were not seen promptly, and even after an initial assessment and x-ray (both myself as Mohammed’s unofficial support worker and the translator went into each stage of this process with him, except the x-ray itself!), we were left sitting for almost an hour. The translator was only booked until 11am and time was running out. He had another job at City Hospital to get to. He said the hospitals constantly book appointments that are too short, and everyone wants him to stay longer, but he can’t, usually. This is a reason to advocate for being seen promptly when you arrive, if you have a booked translator. If they leave, the patient has to go home without being seen.

7.) As it was getting desperate, with the translator having 30 mins left, Mohammed in awful pain thinking we would have to leave, again, with no treatment, and no sign of anything happening, I made this case to the hospital staff member who was available (not sure if he was a doctor or some kind of clinic manager or officer – he wasn’t a receptionist). He got shirty with me, reminding me that everyone wanted to be seen, but I calmly and assertively asked him not to tell us off, reminding him that I was just doing the best for my friend in terrible pain, and that we were worried because the translator had to leave soon. He softened at that point and some miracle occurred, because he agreed to make Mohammed’s tooth extraction happen straight away. I have no idea why this was seemingly not happening otherwise. We were just left waiting with not much information up to that point. If we hadn’t argued for it, the extraction would not have happened that day because the translator would have left and they would not have done it without clear consent from Mohammed in his own language.

8.) The dental hospital has open bays for treatment. The translator and I both accompanied Mohammed to his bay and the dentist began explaining everything. The translator was critical at this point for informed consent. I then went to the waiting room. The translator had to leave about halfway through, which the hospital would probably say is against policy but we got away with it as consent had definitely been obtained. At that point I returned to the bay so that Mohammed had someone with him, although I sat in an empty bay nearby. This was fine with all the staff.

9.) The tooth came out. Mohammed couldn’t talk because of all the dental gear but raised his arms in victory! Finally it was gone! They gave him a replacement bandage in case of continued bleeding, and advised ibuprofen (we picked some more up from the pharmacy on the way home), and that was it. At no point was any cost incurred or mentioned (we only had to pay parking and it was very reasonable – maybe £3 for 2 hours). He didn’t need any follow up appointments.


Maybe this will come in handy sometime for another student or visitor to St Chad’s Sanctuary. The key points are:

1) You need a referral for the dental hospital from your own dentist, and 111 seem to be able to facilitate this.

2) 111 can provide translators, within 30 mins or so in our case.

3) You need to book your own translator for the dental hospital by calling them, with at least 24 hours notice, and then a confirmation call by you at 7.30am on the day.

4) If you have a translator there, try your best to be seen promptly, even though the staff will get a bit cross with you, as you otherwise risk having to leave if the translator runs out of time, which is likely.

5) Despite the difficulties, the dental hospital was very impressive – big, new and the dentist who did the extraction was brilliant – Mohammed was delighted with his procedure, which he said was far better than at his own dentist.


Christmas Message, 2017


Christmas 2017

St. Chad’s Sanctuary wishes you joy and peace this Christmas and throughout 2018.  We send you special greetings and much gratitude for your support during the past year.  Most of all we thank you for your encouragement and your prayers.  May you experience great joy and good cheer in your own households and may you continue to find ways to be Good News to others especially those most alone and vulnerable.

It is both humbling and amazing to know that St. Chad’s Sanctuary has been able to bring much comfort and hope to so many asylum and refugee families over the past twelve months.   Every day we meet those who have been through the most horrendous mental and physical suffering and who continue to go through nightmares of grief and anxiety.   It is  wonderful to see their worried faces light up when they are shown a little bit  kindness and then to rejoice and celebrate with them when they get permission to stay in the UK;  it is such a privilege to help them to start building a new life for themselves and their families.  Many have found employment and have become integrated into their local communities and their children are often star pupils in local schools.  The lovely Fatima whom we first met in 2010 is now beginning to realise her dream of studying medicine and handsome Mohammad is a student at Wolverhampton University and still manages to volunteer with us whenever he can.  Many still find time to come back and to express their gratitude and remind us that we are their extended family in the UK.  Some are now on our Sanctuary Team.  It is often hard to realise that we once put shoes on their feet, clothes on their backs and gave them their first English lessons!

However, for so many, there seems to be no let-up in their struggle to find a place of safety and protection.  They face disappointment, followed by more disappointment as those dreaded refusal letters keep coming.  Sometimes we find that all our efforts to help go unheeded; finally, we can only stand with them in silent solidarity,  praying that some way forward can be found before they are picked up, detained and deported.  The work of St. Chad’s Sanctuary is full of joy, sorrow and heartbreak.  We are blessed to have an amazing team of people who make it a place of welcome and who do so much hard work to meet the needs of those who come for help.

We are privileged to be able to journey with asylum seekers and refugees; every day we marvel at their courage and resilience.  They are so gracious!  Without the help of so many benefactors this work could not be done.  I want to pay special tribute to those hidden helpers who do so much behind the scenes; who remain nameless and faceless to us but who work so hard so that we can have the clothing, hygiene products, the food and the funds to keep going.  May God who knows you by name, bless you and your loved ones.

During this Christmastide let us reflect on Christ the light of the world, who was born into the darkness of the stable and into the cruelty of Herod’s regime where so soon in his young life was to see him and his parents flee to Egypt in search of safety and protection.  Let us welcome the strangers in our own communities especially those who have had to escape persecution, leaving behind loved ones and their beloved lands.  We pray to see in them the face of Christ and be for them beacons of light and hope.

With love, prayer and every good wish for Christmas and the New Year.  


Margaret Walsh IJS.



October 21st. is the feast day of Blessed Nicolas Barre. Some of you will know him as the saint who looks after the Sanctuary keys! Many of you ask to know more so here is a brief summary of my hero!

Nicolas was born in France on October 21st. 1621. He was ordained priest in 1642. Soon he became known for his holiness and for his spiritual direction. While the well off sought him out because of his brilliance as a preacher and confessor, Nicolas preferred to be among the ordinary people. While stationed in Amiens and Rouen he became very concerned about those who were illiterate and who had to beg to survive. In 1662, he started training volunteers so that they could teach the children. Soon these ‘little free schools’ became very popular.

In 1666 he suggested to some of the women volunteers that they might like to live in community and to start by having dinner together occasionally! That was the beginning of our Institute! Nicolas insisted that these women should not be cloistered as was the norm for religious at the time but should live and work among the people – especially the most needy – and, when necessary, to reach out and find the poor in their own homes. He would not allow them to accept money from rich patrons who might then impose their own agenda and said that they should work for no reward, depending on the Providence of God for all their needs.
Nicolas Barré’s health, never too robust, meant that he was confined to the infirmary in his Minim community towards the end of his life. He continued to see people who came to visit him and to deal with the concerns of the Institute. With regard to the question of its future, he put all in God’s hands and prepared for death. This came on 31st May 1686.

Here is a link to the Sanctuary Bulletin

International Women’s Day.

Last Wednesday, 8th March, was International Women’s Day.

Over the past year we have seen a huge increase in the number of women using our services. They now account for approximately one third of those coming in search of practical help (along with one third men and one third children) and our classes, once very male dominated, are more and more equally balanced.

Asylum-seeking and refugee women are often extremely vulnerable as they struggle to adapt to an alien culture, but International Women’s Day is not only about recognising and trying to combat suffering and prejudice, it is also about celebrating.

And there is much to celebrate.

These women are determined and ambitious. They are loving and compassionate. They are strong and resilient.

The hands pictured here are those of some of the women who walked through our doors on International Women’s Day: volunteers, those who came for practical provision, and ESOL students.

These are those of all ages and all abilities, those who have different cultures, religions, languages, experiences, fears, hopes and dreams.

These are those from all around the world and from just around the corner.

These are those who have lived in Birmingham all their lives alongside those who are just tentatively beginning to call this city home; those who will stay as well as those who are just passing through.

These are those who we want to celebrate, recalling that each of them is a human being, worthy of dignity; valuable and beloved just as they are.

Never Forget

Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi Death Camps. It is a chance to pause and reflect and remember: to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the holocaust and by subsequent and ongoing genocides.

It is a time to look back, to create a safe space to grieve for lives damaged and lost: but it is also a time to look forward: to a time when we can truly say “never again”. The value of our history is to be found in the lessons we can learn for our future

Birmingham commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with an event at the Town Hall on Sunday 22nd February. Past and present suffering were powerfully evoked amidst a reminder that it is all of us, and each of us, who hold the responsibility to ensure that “never again” becomes a reality.

One speaker, who had been a child refugee welcomed to Britain during the Second World War spoke of visiting the Calais Jungle, connecting it to his own experience. This matters to me, he said, because I too was a refugee. He told the story of how his mother, who should have been able to join him in the UK in 1940, was prevented from doing so by bureaucratic delay … until it was too late: another life lost. He mourned for how little seems to have changed, how little has been learned. Bureaucratic delays still keep people away from our shores. I wonder if anyone is counting how many deaths have their names in piles of paper on a home office desk.

One of our own Sudanese students dared to stand up in front of a crowded banqueting hall to tell his own, more recent, experience of surviving genocide and escaping Darfur. It was a story of destruction and pain and separation and suffering. He demonstrated overwhelming courage to share so articulately the story of things which no-one should ever have to experience. It was a story which was hard to speak but which he realised needed to be heard. It was a story that included the words “It is not just me. Everyone from Sudan, they have terrible stories.” He wants the world to know, because he wants the world to help. How we wish we knew better how we could.

There is much to weep over: in our history, and in our present. But running throughout the event there was also a thread of hope: the indomitable human spirit which, while clearly capable of great cruelty is also capable of great acts of humanity, loyalty and love. It was, as an Auschwitz Survivor who shared their experiences at the event said: “Love and life itself which allowed me to go.”

We all play a part in creating the future: we must decide what we want that future to look like. Genocide never “just happens”: the possibility of it is spawned from a language of exclusion and hatred and fear; it creeps up, fed by policies and practices designed to sow division and distrust; fed by our reluctance to rock the boat and the complacency of our comfortable life.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems of our world: but to do nothing is not a solution. To stand by and watch the suffering of others, or to turn the other way so we don’t have to watch is not a solution. We have to begin somewhere, but most of all we have to begin. Each of us, all of us. In our own small ways, we can choose gestures of trust instead of fear, of welcome instead of exclusion, of love instead of hate.

Here we will begin by saying to those who come to our shores seeking the freedom and safety they so desperately need, “you are welcome here” We will aspire be symbols of that “love and life itself” which allows hope to go on.

Remembering Christmas

christmas at st chads sanctuaryThe trees are down and tinsel packed away for another year … and the manic rush of the end of term has somewhat subsided: yet many happy memories of special moments shared in the run up to the festive season remain, so we thought you might want to share in them too!

Christmas, as much if not more than any other season, is the time when the gospel realities of our work seem at the forefront of our thinking. We remain inspired by the memory of a Middle-Eastern family in precarious circumstances who journeyed far from home and struggled to find a welcome. We are inspired by God’s choice to be found among the poor and the outcast and his call for us to place ourselves there too.

christmas at st chads sanctuaryJust over a week before Christmas, the Grimshaw Room at St Chad’s Cathedral hosted us for our Christmas party for our students. Highlights included having a lot of fun carol singing (with our grateful thanks to the talented musicians who made it work so well!), some silly games (because no-one is too old to play pass the parcel, are they?) but above all a chance to relax, to be among friends and to laugh together.  A good time, it is safe to say, was had by all!

The last week of term is always incredibly busy as we distribute gifts to our visitors and try to meet the needs of all those who come to us, especially those with the greatest need, before the break. In the midst of it all though this year, we decided, for the first time, to host a family Christmas party forsome of our guests and their children. I think everyone who helped clear up the mess afterwards would agree that it was well worth it.  We well and truly filled our reception space: filled with their presence but also with their joy and laughter. Silly games and Santa featured once again. One of the little ones spent more or less the entire afternoon just dancing away … a lesson for all of us perhaps: that the season of Christmas isn’t just about getting things done, it’s about stepping out of the humdrum of the ordinary and dancing to a different tune. st chads sanctuary

We were once more overwhelmed by the wonderful generosity of the many schools, parishes, and individuals who brought food and clothing and gifts to share with our visitors. We never cease to marvel at what is made possible by the simple gestures of kindness from friends and strangers.

It would be wrong to leave this post without mentioning the amazing work of all our fabulous volunteers: the regulars, and those who just turned up for the day but were happy to be thrown in at the deep end and muck in. There were, inevitably, minor elements of chaos towards the end of term… but not so much as there would have been without the energy and goodwill of a lot of fabulous people, who did all that was required and more. And who, above all, kept smiling to the very end… the end of term that is, and the end of carol singing in the local pub to round it all off too!

Green Lungs Exhibition Launch

During late October and early November, over 50 of our ESOL and drop-in students had the opportunity to go to Cannon Hill Park to take part in the Green Lungs project, an initiative to welcome Birmingham’s new arrivals to the green spaces of the city.

During the workshops they explored the park, reflecting on its sights and sounds, and of course never missing an opportunity to learn a bit of new vocabulary along the way! It was notable that the students were all struck by this oasis of peace and fresh air in a city they are learning to call ‘home’.

Last Thursday we returned to the MAC for the launch of the exhibition which was created using the students’ words and images. With film footage, pictures and words, and sound installations it represents some of what the students’ experienced during the workshop days.

There is perhaps nothing as “English” as a city park, and yet the Victorians who founded many of them were great explorers and the plants come from all over the world. The students who participated were invited to plant bulbs in Cannon Hill Park, symbolic of their welcome to the city and an invitation to put down roots here and become part of all that the city is.

The launch, as much as the whole project, was a wonderful opportunity for all of those who took part: the students, and those of us lucky enough to accompany them in their discovery of this place.

These brief snippets try to paint a picture of the value of the experience. It was amazing to watch several of our students’ faces light up when they saw their photos or their work on the wall. It would be easy to underestimate how precious that representation of their contribution is for those who can feel undervalued by a society who refuses to let them work, or from which they feel excluded by a lack of linguistic ability.


·        It must be so easy for our pre-entry students (absolute beginners) to forget how much they have to contribute, so it was a great pleasure to see one of them not only demonstrating that he was something of an expert when it came to planting, but that he suddenly discovered ways to communicate his knowledge to others. We watched his self-confidence grow before our very eyes.

·        As we walked around the park after planting our bulbs, one of the students turned to ask whether it would be possible to come back and plant trees, saying “Because trees last for a very long time and they would be here even long after we have gone.” Those of us who heard were deeply touched by this desire to leave a mark on this place which has made them welcome.

We are very grateful to Ampersands Projects, Cannon Hill Park and the MAC for the fabulous opportunity and warm welcome they offered to us throughout the project.

The exhibition is open in the downstairs gallery at the MAC until 31st January. Do take the time to go and see, watch and listen to our students’ work.

An article by Sister Margaret

Here is a piece written by Sister Margaret, and was recently featured in ‘The Tablet’


Sister Margaret Walsh, of the Infant Jesus Sisters, who runs St Chad’s, in Birmingham, a sanctuary which helps the constant flow of refugees and asylum seekers that arrive every day, gives thetablet.co.uk an insight into their work

Since our records began, more than 57,000 people have signed in. At the moment about 150 come each week for practical items and a further 150 for English language classes. We have provided over 53,000 items of clothing, more than 10,000 bags of food, and around 3,000 hygiene packs.

Many who come are newly arrived and are still wearing what they wore on their long and hazardous journeys from home. We only see most people once or twice because they are frequently moved elsewhere in the country or may face deportation.

Mohammad, from Syria, joined my religious literacy group last week. In 2012, he barely escaped with his life while living in Damascus and has not had a good night’s sleep since he left because he suffers the most awful flashbacks of what happened to him and his family.

His journey to Britain took him through several countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. He survived two journeys in dangerously overcrowded boats, one of which capsized but, thank God, all passengers, including three young children were saved.

That journey cost him US$1,500 (£1,000) and he was forced on to the boat at gunpoint. Mohammad is a devout Muslim whose best friend in Syria was a Christian. He enjoys sharing his faith and he listens to, respects and appreciates the faiths of others. He tells me that I remind him of his grandmother whom he loved and admired!

“Mohammad has not had a good night’s sleep since he left because

he suffers the most awful flashbacks of what happened to him and his family.”

We have over 70 volunteers and a full programme of activities five days a week. Thanks to the generosity of benefactors and volunteers, we are able to give practical help, especially to those who are destitute and can offer immigration and welfare advice to a growing number.

We also teach 10 levels of English language including a religious literacy course.

It is a great privilege to offer a welcome and some sanctuary to these lovely people. Asylum seekers come from many parts of the world; few speak English. Every day we meet the most gracious people; they are full of hope and courage despite appalling stories of persecution and loss.

However, many are too heartbroken and beaten down to be cheerful. It can be very difficult for us too because often we can do little but suffer with them.
The widely publicised pictures of Aylan washed up on a Turkish shore have touched the hearts of many and there is now a much greater outpouring of goodwill in our country towards asylum seekers.
The outpouring of support for refugees since the death of Aylan has been ‘a miracle’Outpouring of support for refugees since death of Aylan is ‘a miracle’ (PA)

I have worked in this area for 16 years and the change in public attitudes for the good really is a miracle. Before these heartbreaking images appeared, we often battled with negativity and with the many myths surrounding those who come here for protection.

Aylan’s father, who also lost his wife and an older son in the same tragedy, prayed that their deaths would do some good. I believe his prayers have been answered. A baby found among the reeds by the river Nile changed the course of our ancestors’ history (Exodus 2:3); we continue to hope and pray that Aylan’s tragic death will be spoken of and remembered by generations yet to come.

As the time goes on, we are welcoming back those we helped in the early days. They come to say thank you and so often they tell us that we are their only family in the UK. Always they want to give a helping hand. They are full of gratitude. It is very humbling to be part of their journey; we have entertained many angels since we decided to welcome people here.

In the words of Pope Francis: “They are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters; hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war – seeking a better life, seeking happiness.”

St Chad’s Sanctuary is a charity that relies entirely on donations to continue its work. Visit their website at www.stchadssanctuary.com for more information.


A trip to the Calais Jungle

Last week, 2 of The Sanctuary team, along with a few of their friends went to visit the camp in Calais: ‘The Jungle’. They took aid and helped out while they were there and this is their story:

While our government was building fences around Calais, we decided to help tackle the real issues. The desperate need of thousands of people, left with almost nothing after fleeing for their lives from their countries, and having already been through so much to reach a place of safety.

We researched the best way to help, and after finding the “Calais – People to People Solidarity-Action from the UK” group on Facebook, we decided it would be possible to drive to Calais and pack our cars as full as possible with things that were needed. We asked around for donations and were overwhelmed with the response. Within 24 hours we had already hit our fundraising target and had so many offers of donations! By the time we had finished collecting and sorting, we had around £500 and a bountiful supply of things to take over.

Once we had arrived with our tightly packed cars, we had arranged to meet Pascal, who ran one of the organisations that focused on practical goods handouts. He quickly made us realise the stark situation: one of the largest organisations helping the camp was run by a man living off his lifesavings, working 7 days a week, much of the time by himself. We dropped the clothing, food and hygiene we had taken and spoke more with Pascal about the situation. He told us of the great need for manpower to help the situation and funding to allow them to buy the items they run short of.

We then met Riaz, volunteering with another organisation in the camp, and he took us to visit the school. A small shack of corrugated metal sheets, with some children playing outside. The timetable was written up with classes throughout the week on a whiteboard, and as we were there many people were arriving, hoping to get a place in a class. We spoke to a few people and, everyone was very happy to see us and welcomed us, but almost all asked the same question. “Why?” Why was our government so against helping refugees? Why were they left like this? Sadly, we had no answer.

From here we went onto one of the camps in the Jungle. Make shift tents, a makeshift tap, piles of rubbish (tided as much as people could) and a dusty, muddy ground greeted us as we entered. More importantly, many people, waving and smiling at us, happy to chat to us and even the offer of a hot drink from a very generous Eritrean man!

While there we helped with an additional food handout after going to buy food with some of our donated money. A bi-weekly drop, done in different parts of the camp each time, so everyone could get something. 

The Calais JungleOn the day, we were lined up next to 3 vans with our cars, faced with a queue as far as the eye could see of people, hoping they would get something to eat. Each was given a small bag with some vegetables, then at each van, they were given a few additional items. Croissants, oil, bread, rice, whatever was available. And then each person moved on for the next in line. After 2 hours in the pouring rain, we were nearing the end of the line which must have been at least 500 people long. Those at the end left with only handfuls of croissants each, but luckily this time, each left with at least something. Many people only had t-shirts and sandals and had waited hours in the rain.

During our time there, it was a real struggle to see how this kind of thing can be happening just 25 miles from our coastline. With fences being put up around, rather than aid being provided. We spoke with many people, just like you or me, who had been through so much already, and simply want somewhere safe to live. It was clear to see that more needed to be done, and we all left quite down. We had gone over to help and it felt as if we had been just a drop in an enormous ocean. However, we all agreed, one drop can lead to a rainstorm. And that each of us would find our way to do more.