Refugee Action Group

Redland Quaker Meeting – report on the first period of operation of our Refugee Action Group.

Collective action?

When in 2014-15 our local meeting carried out an exercise to re-imagine ourselves as a meeting, which led to the adoption of a new structure, one of the strongest calls coming out of the discussions was for more emphasis on learning and action.  We accordingly set up Learning & Action as one of our four ‘Hubs’, which has since since focused our efforts in learning (via study groups and meetings for learning), in appeals, and in our outward-facing action.  We spent some time considering, as a meeting, whether we wanted to be involved in collective witness or action, as distinct from supporting individuals in their action, and concluded that we did.  An External Witness Task Group explored what areas of action we might as a meeting want to be involved in, and in March 2016 we held a well-attended dialogue session about the general feasibility of collective action as a meeting. Proposals were invited about potential areas of action from members of the meeting, and in July Caroline Beatty made a proposal to a receptive gathering of Redland Friends that we should make working with refugees in Bristol, which she had herself been doing for some time, the focus for our external action.

In September 2016, Redland Local Meeting for Business decided (1) that we could set up action groups for external collective action on behalf of the meeting, and (2) that we establish as our first example a group to work with refugees in Bristol, operating if possible under the umbrella of Bristol City of Sanctuary.  The Refugee Action Group then established initially consisted of Caroline Beatty (convenor), Tom Allport, Celia Beeson, Ian Beeson, Julia Bush, Julia Richmond, and Chris Watkins;  Susana Askew and Marian Liebmann joined subsequently.  The remainder of this report summarises the activities of this group, and related activity in our meeting, since the group’s creation.

‘Sanctuary everywhere’

The group made contact with the Bristol City of Sanctuary organisation, and sends a representative to its monthly planning meetings.  We put a sign to welcome refugees and asylum seekers on the meeting house door.  Our meeting took part in the 2016 and 2017 sanctuary marches through the centre of Bristol, on or near Human Rights Day in December.  These walks were accompanied by talks on refugee-related themes (‘Dignity not Destitution’ was the theme in 2017).

Our meeting hosted a series of three one-day workshops from Turning the Tide, the arm of QPSW (Quaker Peace & Social Witness) that trains and assists groups wanting to take action for positive social change.  These took place in January, February and April 2017, and were designed specifically to support action by Quaker meetings.  The workshops were open to other meetings, and not restricted to refugee-related action only.  People attended from Redland, other Bristol meetings, and from further afield.  Our Refugee Action Group were able to use these workshops to reflect upon and plan what we wanted to do.

Two of our number attended a conference organised at Woodbrooke by QARN (Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network) on Forced Migration, in February 2017.  Britain Yearly Meeting appointed Tim Gee as Forced Migration Programme Developer, to help people and meetings support refugees and asylum seekers in Britain, about this time.  Tim, in his consultation with local meetings over this programme, visited Redland in April.  Our group had the opportunity to feed into the development of the statement that eventually became the ‘Sanctuary Everywhere’ manifesto, later adopted by Meeting for Sufferings.  QPSW set up a national network of Quaker ‘sanctuary meetings’ and invited meetings to join it.  Redland decided at its meeting for business in October 2017 to become a sanctuary meeting.  Some of our group attended Yearly Meeting Gathering at Warwick at the end of July, participated in workshops there, and brought back strong messages about faith in action.

A sanctuary meeting

Numerous individuals in our meeting were involved, before the inception of the action group, in various projects to help refugees and asylum seekers, including language teaching, befriending, offering accommodation, and assisting in encounters with the authorities.  The action group has intensified and focused some of this activity: its members have become involved in the local welcome centres (including Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) and Borderlands), in general support work, arts projects, advocacy and other activities.  We have made contact with and are working with ABC (Aid Box Community), a group which has grown up out of support for the refugee camps at Calais, and which has recently opened a shop nearby in Waverley Rd.  We have established a link with Bristol Hospitality Network (BHN) and Meeting has agreed they can use our kitchen occasionally for their social enterprise catering project.

The action group, supported by the meeting as a whole, took part in Refugee Week in July, and we hope to make our meeting’s participation in the main celebratory event in Queens Square a regular event.  For Quaker week in October, we made a connection with the Journey to Justice programme happening in parallel in Bristol at the same time, and hosted an open meeting on a theme of justice and sanctuary, with a meal provided by BHN.

In Meeting as a whole awareness of and attention to refugee issues has been growing since we set up the action group.  Our weekly appeals schedule has been geared especially to external action, the work of QPSW, and support for refugees.  We have organised sales of the books created by refugees at Borderlands, and donated the proceeds of the sale of Joan Hill’s art works to BRR.  A related fund-raiser at Backwell School organised by a member of our meeting raised £1000.  We have collected clothes to go to the Calais camps.  The children’s meeting has dwelt on refugee and sanctuary issues and undertaken several related projects.  This year’s appeal given by the children and young people was in support of ABC.  We have had a meeting for learning on what working with refugees is like, and have shown the three films in the first BBC series of Exodus – our Journey to Europe. We are very pleased that a few refugees are coming to meeting for worship and becoming involved in the life of the meeting.  One of them told us his story in an interview over sharing lunch.

The action group hopes to be able to sustain the present level of action and interest, and take it in new directions.  We will continue to involve the meeting as a whole, and ask the meeting from time to time for its considered view on refugee issues and how we at Redland should respond.  Anyone interested in joining the action group can ask any existing member.  Currently, we meet on the second Monday of each month, at 6.30pm, to plan and coordinate our activities.

Ian Beeson, on behalf of the Refugee Action Group at Redland LQM, 21 Jan 2018