A place to flourish
Cristina Pecheanu, Destitution Services Manager at Jesuit Refugee Service UK, shares the importance of the activities run at the centre.
‘I was abandoned by the system, I was neglected and I don’t know how to move forward. So when I came, I found each volunteer trying to put in their best effort to welcome me with my name, which in itself is a source of comfort. Each time, each encounter gives me strength to fight for my life.’
These touching words from one of our refugee friends, Han, speak volumes about our work to accompany refugees and people seeking asylum. Each week we welcome around 100 refugees to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Day Centre at the Hurtado Jesuit Centre in East London. People come throughout the day – some staying for 5 minutes, but many others staying for an hour or more sharing lunch and conversation. It brings great joy to hear the clatter of cutlery and the laughter of friends meeting together. Alongside a hot lunch and practical help, our Day Centre offers access to accompaniment and a series of activities throughout the week: gospel choir, drama workshops, bicycle training and English classes, to name a few!
The benefits these activities bring to those who participate are immense; they help our refugee friends to discover a new hobby, practise skills and highlight their talents. This is extremely important when you consider that most of our refugee friends are denied the right to work and the chance to contribute fully to British society. Taking part in our activities is a way to come together with others, to connect and to rejoice. Raymond, a friend of JRS for five years and regular member of our choir and drama groups, spoke to us of the benefits of taking part: ‘Personally, I gain certain things [...] an opportunity to sing, entertain yourself, an opportunity to gather with your colleagues who are in similar situations, and then the bond [...] there is a sense of oneness, a sense of togetherness, a sense of loving each other.’
Alongside the outward purpose of the exercises, whether it be to sing or act in a play, the activities themselves also play a much deeper, more meaningful role in our friends’ lives; they can be places of sharing stories and coming together to support one another and to feel united. As Raymond puts it: ‘It’s an opportunity for us to meet, to share our stories, share the situations that we face. And we are able to lift, if there is a need to lift one up.’
We believe the importance of such activities cannot be overstated. At JRS UK we look past a purely service-provider/beneficiary relationship and we strive above all to see the person in front of us as a whole human being, somebody with talents, skills and interests whose identity is not simply their legal status. In the words of Han, who attends the choir each week: ‘The Home Office has identified me as a person with no purpose in life. When you don’t have a legal status, that is what people attach to you and that is why you are isolated.’
For Han, the JRS refugee choir serves to counter this isolation and detachment: ‘It rejuvenates the mind, soul [...] I find it very inspiring and it is calming, a sort of stress reliever. It encourages me to face challenges in life [because it is gospel song]. It motivates and it is very inspiring to move forward in life.’
It is wonderful to witness the pure joy and satisfaction on our friends’ faces when they perform as part of our choir and drama groups in front of an audience – be it large or small. It reminds me of the importance of having a platform where everyone’s unique gifts and voices are recognised and cherished; a space of warmth and welcome that can counter the hostility our refugee friends experience on a daily basis.
We are living in times that often feel dark, challenging and full of despair; an environment deliberately framed as ‘hostile’; government policies aimed at disrupting, detaching and isolating some of the most vulnerable people. It is up to us to create and foster a counterculture of love, acceptance and togetherness. There is so much more to this than merely attending to people’s most basic needs; what often makes a difference is how we allow someone not just to survive but to flourish. Refugees have so much to share and to contribute to society, yet they are routinely denied access to opportunities and spaces that allow them to do this.
We aim to create such spaces for our refugee friends through the activities we run at JRS UK. Whether it is through singing, acting or learning a language, our friends can share with us a part of who they are and what makes them unique. We are enriched by every encounter with them and we come together each week to create something new and full of hope.
This article was first published on the 2019 Spring edition of Jesuits & Friends magazine.