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Northern Refugee Response

by Jim Coulson


As northerners, we are renowned for our welcoming nature and there is no better example of that than the number of groups that have sprung up across our region to support refugees. With the war in Syria, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and many other disasters occuring around the globe, the World Bank estimates that there are now more than 80 million displaced people looking for a new, safe home.

Home Office figures released in September 2021 found that Yorkshire and the Humber has welcomed more refugees than any other region of England since 2017. With most being settled in the cities, groups such as PAFRAS (Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) in Leeds and BIASAN (Bradford Immigration and Asylum Support and Advice Network) work tirelessly to provide food, essential supplies, support navigating the complex asylum system, and social connections to people newly arrived in the area.

Wharfedale’s reverse advent calendar collection drive

And outside of the cities, there are organisations such as Wharfedale Refugee Response connecting people in the wider area with the work of these charities.

Wharfedale Refugee Response is based in Burley-in-Wharfedale, near Ilkley in West Yorkshire,  and came into being during the latter half of 2015, the year of what was termed the European refugee crisis. Nearly a million people fled to Europe during that year, escaping war and persecution. On 4th September, the image of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi’s body washing up on a Turkish beach was released, throwing sharp focus on the human tragedy that was unfolding in the Mediterranean. People were so desperate to escape the horrors at home that they took their families’ lives into their own hands to try and reach sanctuary.

There were also so many wonderful established charities and groups in the cities, and it seemed that one of the best ways we could help people in this area was to support them in the work they were already doing.

“As events unfolded in the media, the churches in the village called a meeting for anyone in the community who wanted to help” says one of Wharfedale Refugee Response founders, Sarah O’Mahony. “I volunteered for the role of setting up an email list and Facebook page, and tried to work out what we could do to help through research and networking.”

“I discovered that there were many other people in the area who were trying to do the same, and we began working on small projects together, fundraising events, collections of clothing, toiletries and the like to be sent out to Europe, day trips to the area for families in Bradford. There were also so many wonderful established charities and groups in the cities, and it seemed that one of the best ways we could help people in this area was to support them in the work they were already doing.”

Over the years the group has teamed up with a range of local organisations, working responsively with key partners including Refugee Action, PAFRAS, Yorkshire Aid and BIASAN to help fulfil a range of needs as they identify them. They do this through a combination of regular appeals and one-off projects, supported by the wider community.

Run by a volunteer team of busy working parents, Wharfedale Refugee Response holds an annual advent appeal involving supporters completing reverse advent calendars. The idea is to fill a box with 24 essential food items and toiletries in the run up to Christmas, dropping them off after the big day to be distributed by the team to their partner charities in Leeds and Bradford. The appeal has been running for 6 years now, and collects up to 10,000 items a year.

They also Support a regular coat collection drive in autumn, providing warm clothing to see families and individuals through the harsh Yorkshire winter, and source buggies, clothes, and toys for families arriving in the area.

In addition, the organisation collects essential items for adult men in temporary accommodation in Bradford, and supported a local church to refurbish and furnish a home in the local area for a newly arrived family.

Sarah describes Wharfedale Refugee Response as a “grass-roots community group of like-minded individuals working individually and together to respond to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees in our region, and fundraising for those further afield.” In the future, she hopes that the group can grow and take on more appeals as well as begin a community resettlement programme in their area.

She also hopes to follow the example of Ripon and help Lower Wharfedale to become an official area of sanctuary.  “They have done a great job in Ripon, becoming a City of Sanctuary in 2016 and setting up a community resettlement programme too, and these are real ambitions for Wharfedale Refugee Response as well” says Sarah. “I’ve recently left work to dedicate more time to Wharfedale Refugee Response, and as my children grow up and with a growing team of volunteers, I feel that we have so much potential ahead of us.”

Wharfedale Refugee Response volunteers

Across the border in Lancashire, Preston has also achieved City of Sanctuary status. The group behind the campaign states that its aim is “to create a network of people and organisations right across the city, united in making our city more welcoming, open and fair for all, by creating a platform for collaboration, dialogue and mutual opportunities.”

The group’s aim is to welcome newly arrived people into the town and to enable and equip them to live a fulfilling life.

Launched in 2017, the group champions a two-way integration process that not only encourages newly arrived people to become active in the society, but also primes the local community to create a welcoming environment. The UN Refugee Agency notes that “the integration of refugees is a dynamic and multifaceted two-way process which requires efforts by all parties concerned, including a preparedness on the part of refugees to adapt to the host society without having to forego their own cultural identity, and a corresponding readiness on the part of host communities and public institutions to welcome refugees and meet the needs of a diverse population.”

Another group supporting refugees in Lancashire is the Asylum Seekers and Refugee Community Blackburn (ARC). The group’s aim is to welcome newly arrived people into the town and to enable and equip them to live a fulfilling life.

It has been running since 2004 and collects food, clothing and cash donations to help people settle in the area. The group runs drop-in sessions providing social connections, English lessons, advice clinics, a job club and a food bank too.

Whilst there is still turmoil in the world and people have to flee their homes for fear of what will happen to them if they remain, thankfully there will be people there to support them. We pride ourselves on how friendly we are in the north and it is great to see our communities pulling together to help those in real need. If you would like find out more and to help them continue their work, you can visit the groups mentioned here: