How Birmingham’s offer of sanctuary has helped refugees start new lives

Rev David Butterworth looks back at how Birmingham City Council helped turn his vision to help newly arrived refugees into a reality.

'Birmingham… it should be called Heaven’ - authentic words of a six-year-old Syrian refugee boy, spoken a few days after arriving at Birmingham airport with his parents and sister on a new Syrian Refugee Home Office programme in February 2018.

Birmingham was one of the first UK cities to pick this initiative up, while still unfolding with planning. When other cities struggled to act and accept refugees from Syria, Birmingham had already said ‘we will receive 50 immediately’.

It was my privilege to ask Sir Albert Bore in a Citizens UK assembly in Birmingham, with a 1,000 Brummies from everywhere, now present in the Great Hall at the University of Birmingham. Later, we concurred, in a full Council House Chamber where, on behalf of thousands of Brummies, I read my letter, ‘I have a dream… ‘. The big ask received immediate and warm cross-party support.

Birmingham subsequently hosted the first National Refugee Welcome Board Assembly, where we announced that yet again Birmingham would be the first city to implement a new Home Office initiative - Community Sponsorship – to enable community groups to take responsibility for welcoming, supporting and settling vulnerable refugee families.

As a Methodist Church Minister and part of Citizens UK Birmingham’s leadership team, it had been my joy to collaboratively embrace wide communities. So it was natural to invite the Progressive Synagogue to form part of the support group to welcome a refugee family and sponsor them for two years. Within this collaborative relationship, I had met a profound Kinder Transport lady, Ruth (now aged 98), who had fled Germany in 1937.

And so, at another Citizens UK Assembly in April 2016, we invited the council’s leaders to offer them our thanks. With Ruth standing by my shoulder, along with early arriving Syrian Refugees, I asked the city council to receive an additional 500 refugees. It was a big ask, especially in light of other cities not standing-up to receive refugees. Again it was a big Brummie ‘yes’.

A few weeks ago Radio 4 came along to one of our Syrian Refugee Support Group meetings to see how the Community Sponsorship programme was helping refugees in Birmingham – a ‘super-diverse’ city in terms of its communities and cultures. And it was fantastic to hear different generations share their experiences of arrival and how they have made their homes here.

Without the magnificent help from Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Strategic Migration Partnership, this initiative would not be possible. The council has been hugely helpful ensuring the ‘heart of Birmingham’ is manifest and beating a welcome to those in extreme need – a great example to other cities.

The Syrians and the Kindertransport will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 11am tomorrow (Friday, 16 August 2019) and then will be available on BBC iPlayer.

Rev David Butterworth MA is a Methodist Church Minister in Birmingham District and also a member of Citizen UK’s Leadership Team in the city.

This blog post was published on 15 August 2019.

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