“You can stand by and watch or you can do something,” says Deepak Sardiwal, speaking of the Syrian refugee crisis which UNICEF estimates has left nearly six million children and vulnerable people in need of humanitarian assistance, “It is the biggest emergency of our lifetime and we’ve become immune to it.”
HuffPost UK is speaking to Sardiwal in a living room in Herne Hill, south London, surrounded by nearly thirty other citizen volunteers who have committed themselves to sponsoring a refugee family under the government’s Syrian Refugee Community Sponsorship Scheme, launched in July 2016.
It’s a cold Tuesday night in the middle of winter, and the group, complete with dog Linus, have come together for their third meeting since starting the process in October to relocate a family from a camp in the Middle East to a Lambeth postcode.
The programme, most famously taken up by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has given part of Lambeth Palace to a Syrian family, is the grass roots component of the pledge to take 20,000 refugees by 2020.
Allowing people to home a family in their community, to help with financial, educational, and emotional support for (a minimum of) two years, everyone in the room is aware of the long road ahead.
“British people do care, they care enough to organise as communities..."”
A mix of friends, strangers and family - brother and sister Nick and Angeli Jeyarajah first got involved when their neighbour Harriet Lamb invited them along - the energy and enthusiasm in the room is palpable, not least because the constant stream of people arriving means they’ve run out of chairs.
“When we held our first public meeting, we were a little nervous - would anyone come?” recalls Harriet Lamb, 56, who works in the charity sector, most recently in her role as CEO of peace building organisation International Alert.
In fact, the initial group were so concerned they might meet with opposition to their plan they halted their distribution of leaflets after only a few streets.
Instead they were “blown away” by unimaginable levels of support. “More and more people came into the room, all of them saying - I was waiting for something like this,” recalls Lamb.
Led by chair, Rachel Griffiths, the volunteers have now formed a central committee responsible for ensuring they can fulfill the scheme’s strict requirements, including everything from private housing, English language tuition, support to medical and social services and £9000 in savings.
As well as more menial tasks like meeting the family at the airport when they arrive and teaching them about British culture.
“We have Arabic speaking lawyers, teachers, health and safety experts, mental health specialists and writers, it has been a revelation,” says Lamb.
Indeed the variety of professions, experience, ages and backgrounds in the room is evident, and is arguably what has helped to make the project get to where it is today.
Although they are now facing one of their biggest battles - to find a private landlord in the nearby area (where the average house price in 2017 was £668,000) who is willing to take housing benefit. Not to mention juggling the new system of universal credit, as the family would be entitled to claim with their refugee status.
When asked their reasons for taking part in such a large project, reasons vary hugely, some citing personal experiences, religion or a sense of social justice.
Griffiths says: “I am a Christian and this is a simple act of response to my faith and my belief that we are to welcome the foreigner, to make room for them.”
Others hope their response will spur the government to do more: “The UK government’s response to the current refugee situation has been disappointing to put it mildly. When governments fall short, citizens must show leadership,” says Sardiwal.
Local MP Helen Hayes has also shown her support for the group, saying: “Our country has a great history of welcoming refugees fleeing violence and persecution. I am proud to see residents in Herne Hill working to support a refugee family from Syria to settle here in our community.”
“When governments fall short, citizens must show leadership.””
A handful of the women, including Eva Jonsson, a masters student who migrated to the UK from Sweden, feel they are responding to a wider political problem.
“The hateful narrative against migrants, and muddling up them with refugees, is used to try and instill fear and hatred against others,” says Jonsson.
Lamb agrees: “I believe when the voices of hatred and division have grabbed the microphone, those of us who believe in compassion and generosity, must find ways to get our view point across too.”
Both Lamb and Jonsson have also spent time travelling in the region, visiting refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Greece where Jonsson says she only saw EU and UK policies “making it worse” for refugees.
“The only thing policy is doing is wasting money and killing refugees,” she adds.
The wide range of motives is as varied as the professions and personalities around the room, all united by the desire to make a difference - a goal they are hoping to achieve in the first quarter of 2018.
Although they are under no illusion that there won’t be some obstacles along the way, Lamb sums up the sentiment in the room: “Even if we help just one family, we have helped that family.”
You can follow Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees on Twitter for progress updates.
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