Creating Spaces of Safety and a Culture of Welcome

April 17th, 2013

The City of Toronto’s surprise decision last month to formalize its long-standing Access Without Fear policy has given it the status of Canada’s first “sanctuary city,’ garnering attention across the country, as well as travelling at speed across networks in North America and Europe.  We take this occasion to reprint a December 2011 interview with Sarah Eldridge, by Casper ter Kuile, at Common Cause, on the UK city of Sheffield’s and its official status as a Sanctuary City.  Sheffield’s City of Sanctuary is a Cities of Migration Good Idea.

City of Sanctuary seeks to build a culture of hospitality for people seeking sanctuary in the UK. Over the last six years, they have created a network of towns and cities throughout the UK where asylum seekers and refugees can contribute and participate fully in the life of their communities.

What did City of Sanctuary set out to do differently?

Sheffield had a number of organisations providing services for asylum seekers and refugees – everything from volunteers who give up spare rooms to legal assistance. What City of Sanctuary wanted was to bring about a cultural change within the city – to appreciate the situations asylum seekers and refugees find themselves in, and to welcome them into active participation in community life.

The aim of City of Sanctuary is that those seeking sanctuary can easily build relationships with local people as neighbours, friends and colleagues. Through these relationships, local people come to understand the injustices refugees face, and become motivated to support and defend them.

How are the organisational values expressed in the way they work?

  • Inclusion: Much like Transition Towns, the network grew out of one initial hub. Now that there are more than 20 towns and cities, a new national governance structure was needed. The new National Committee of seven people includes representatives from local government, human rights law and faith organisations – but most importantly two refugees.
  • Empowerment: Resources created are shared on a public hub for any group to use. Logos, posters, checklists, and a handbook are all available. Although the logo is kept as a standard theme among different groups, local City of Sanctuary groups can choose their own colour combinations.
  • Independence: Each town and city focuses on fulfilling a local need, rather than rolling out a uniform project. The accreditation process has also changed over time to represent the on-the-ground reality.

What has most surprised the team?

As well as becoming a valuable community for those seeking sanctuary, City of Sanctuary has also become a center of social contact for people who have lived in Sheffield for a longer time but who have felt socially isolated.

Local ‘conversation clubs’ and events where everyone shares their traditional food (including Yorkshire puddings) have been central to building bridges among communities – especially once the music and dancing starts! Young families and elderly people have especially benefited.

They’ve also heard back from destitute asylum seekers who have been supported by partner organisation Assist that it makes an extra difference to know that the individuals coming to help them are doing so as a volunteer – because they want to, rather than because they’re being paid to do it.

What would they do differently if they were doing it again?

At the beginning, there was a real focus on scale – especially the number of organisations involved in each new City of Sanctuary. Now, the emphasis is on what signed-up organisations will actively do to create a welcoming city.

What does this mean for us as change-makers?

City of Sanctuary’s approach is rooted in community feeling – which we know is part of a constellation of values that underpin systemic expressions of concern about a wider range of social and environmental issues. By building stronger communities and enabling people to be kind to one another, City of Sanctuary is also encouraging values of equality, freedom and social justice.

Reprinted with permission from Common Cause. Common Cause is a UK-based network of people working to help rebalance cultural values to create a more equitable, sustainable and democratic society.

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