On Thursday 15th November about 30-40 people were privileged to hear two very different but both illuminating keynote speakers and a great account of our activities by our Chair Margaret.We were very fortunate to be allowed the use of St Mary’s church in Brecon and it was good to have the Archbishop of Wales with us. The Church was opened for us by Heather who ensured that we knew where everything was before leaving us in the more than capable hands of Father Steven who was with us throughout the evening. Trish and Liz kindly made teas and coffees and Melrose and Robert were available to give out leaflets, allow people to sign petitions about a fairer asylum system and lifting the ban on work for people seeking asylum as well as answering queries.
Margaret welcomed everyone and introduced John Anderson who we met in August when he arranged for a concert to raise funds for the charity Side By Side with Refugees. He has spent time in both Calais and Greek refugee camps and was prepared to speak about it despite finding it quite traumatic to recall many of the things he had seen. John retired on ill health grounds 5 years ago but as the ‘refugee crisis’ hit headlines in 2015 he was motivated to try to help people seeking sanctuary. Initially he took donated items that might be helpful for people in camps to a warehouse/store in Stanford Le Hope and stayed to help pack. He found this interesting and learnt how joyful teamwork could be. Whilst there he also learned more about the importance of good communication. He told us about some caretakers whom people felt were unfriendly and unhelpful. John spent time getting to know their names and about them as well as explaining what the group were doing . Subsequently they were very helpful and friendly, taking in goods and donating items. Whilst volunteering at the warehouse, he was asked to go to Calais with an urgent delivery for the Care4Calais warehouse. He described the conditions in the camp known as the Jungle as grotesque, disgusting, filthy, cold and muddy but also vibrant, peaceful and civilised. This shanty town was home to about 10,000 ,mostly young men, from about 19 countries who were fed , clothed and given some care by volunteers with no formal assistance from UNHCR or the Red Cross. Of course even this has now gone and these people are displaced with regular raids upon even the hedgerows they sleep in -with tents and sleeping bags being taken and destroyed.
John described how as he came to know some of the people he was amazed by how well organised and civilised the camp was with pop up shops, schools and places of worship. ‘ People trying to live normally in such abnormal circumstances with hopes, fears and love’.He noted that many of the French people were actually very kind but frightened to be seen helping for fear of reprisals from police and unsympathetic members of the population. We learned from John about the French Riot police [CRS] who are paid by Britain to ‘protect our borders’ with rubber bullets, tear gas and brutality and millions of pound of razor wire. He said the only time he was really frightened was when he met them. All the people living in the camp were friendly and grateful for help and some of the pop up cafes sold very cheap but delicious food. It was there that he met a 17 year old Syrian who was helping to clear dishes and had fled Syria to avoid being conscripted or shot. John tried to give him some money which he refused until John said it was a lucky 2 euro Coin. Subsequently months later, the young man gave the coin to John’s daughter in England telling her that it was a lucky coin as it had helped him arrive in the UK, find accommodation and achieve refugee status. He didn’t want charity just to be given a chance to get on with life.
John then volunteered in Chios in Greece on August 2016 where he found the Greeks very welcoming and kindly but trying to cope with vast numbers of people arriving daily. He witnessed many small acts of kindness with people sharing food and helping the volunteers of CERST who set up safe landings, clothing, bedding and kitchens, classes, and children’s activities . John rapidly found that by talking to the Port police that they also became more friendly and helpful. He described seeing a small dinghy with 48 people on board being expertly steered into the harbour by a young man who spoke Hollywood English/American and how he helped to take this group of people to the port to register. This action seemed to surprise the border police FRONTEX who subsequently also became kinder and even donated goods at the end of their tour of duty.
By November 2016 John was exhausted and opted to continue helping from the UK whilst keeping in touch with many of the people he had met – both people seeking asylum and other volunteers from many countries. He continues to help to raise funds.
Mark then spoke about his experiences in running a drop in centre in Newport . The idea for Gap Sanctuary started in 2005 when Newport became a dispersal town and some Eritrean women started to attend the church he worshiped at . In order to learn English, the women asked his wife Claire to meet for coffee and gradually the group increased in size and it became obvious that there was a need for somewhere to meet regularly for friendship, English tuition and support. In 2010 the Gap formally launched and has grown and gained grants and enough funding for 2 full time workers [Mark and Sarah] . They have close links with the local Council,Social services, Welsh Refugee council and Clearsprings [ Housing provider] and this allows them to support people, advocate for them as well as providing a base for activities. Mark described how much he has appreciated the support of HBTSR in providing equipment, outings and starting and supporting the bike maintenance group and a football group as well as provision of Wellies for the new allotment they have. He looks forward [ as we do too] to continued mutual support
Margaret then outlined some of our activities this year and in particular our successful project bringing teenagers [ Both those seeking sanctuary and some locals] from all over south Wales to spend a weekend in a residential activity centre to learn about themselves and others. Then we were able to thank some of the many people/groups who have helped us this year. We continue to be extremely grateful. to all the many people and groups who make it possible for us to offer friendship and welcome – many of whom were recognised with a certificate last year..
This years list was
For running several bike maintenance days and supplying bike paraphenalia at cost
PGL Activity holidays
For partnering with us for Project Get Together and supplying residential places below normal cost
Rowland Jepson- Watton Cottage
For provision of holiday weekends for people seeking sanctuary
Arts in the Tawe Valley
For help with artistic activities at Craig y nos and Penpont
The Mill Talgarth
For help with fundraising and free access to people seeking sanctuary
For support selling books and provision of a book launch
Richard Booth’s Bookshop
For help selling books and supply of a fundraising venue
The Kilvert Gallery
For help with book launch and curating a retrospective of Eugene Fisks work and profits from sales of his books
For support with away days and services to people seeking sanctuary
Herb Garden Cafe
For help with catering and services to people seeking sanctuary
Ysgol Cradoc School
For support with away days and services to people seeking sanctuary
Time Out Brecon
For support of the work of HBTSR by fundraising
The Diocese of Swansea and Brecon
For support of people seeking sanctuary by money, time and expertise.
Gareth Davies -FAW Trust
For introductions to football clubs and leading to supply of tickets to matches
Brecon & Radnorshire Liberal Democrats
Office staff for unfailing support and help and cheerfulness in the face of multiple black bags