A History of Swansea Asylum Support

By Margie Cheesman, volunteer editor

Anyone interested in community-making and asylum justice will appreciate Fusion Swansea‘s new short film, Sanctuary. The film threads together the stories of asylum seekers and activists in Swansea.

To accompany the film, SASS co-founders Shahid Altaf, Banire Sy Savane, and Tom Cheesman have shared their memories from the early days of SASS. We discussed an important question: How are local support organisations brought to life?

SASS was born in 1999 when the UK government announced a new asylum seeker dispersal policy. In response, a group of Chilean refugees who had been here since the 1970s started an initiative to make sure that Swansea would be a welcoming place for new asylum seekers. In the first few years of SASS (then called SBASSG, Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group), volunteers mainly focused on raising public awareness about refugee rights. There were only a couple of asylum seekers living in the city. 

In 2001, the Home Office began sending asylum seekers here in increasingly large numbers. Volunteers got together and asked how they could help. From the beginning, SASS was a grassroots organisation led by Swansea locals with, not just for, asylum seekers from all over the world, including Pakistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The main thing people needed was a place to meet: somewhere to exchange information, support one another, drink coffee, eat biscuits. A generous Welsh couple who ran the Heyokah cafe at the bottom of Constitution Hill opened up their place as a free space for SASS to use as a base every Friday. Very soon, the cafe became a hugely popular hub. 

The community blossomed, outgrowing the cafe, and in 2002 SASS relocated to the Brunswick church on St Helen’s Road. This new space was equipped with a kitchen, table tennis, and numerous rooms, and so the activities expanded. With several hundred asylum seekers now living in Swansea, SASS hosted English classes, provided a creche and play-workers (who were trained locals and refugees) for children, and people took turns to cook for each other. At the time, the only other local support was provided by a small Welsh Refugee Council office which gave legal advice. By 2005, the ‘drop-ins’ at the Brunswick – organised in the early days by Shahid and Samia – provided solidarity and support with paperwork. They were now not only on Fridays but also Saturdays, which was more convenient for families.

An essential function SASS played in those days was as the seed bed for all sorts of other activities. SASS set up conversations which led to new initiatives for asylum seekers and refugees in Swansea. For example, as a result of attending a SASS event with local councillors and MPs, the barrister Roger Warren Evens set up the charity Asylum Justice, which addressed the demand for legal advice and representation. Asylum Justice remains one of the most important immigration law practices in Wales. Likewise, City of Sanctuary started as a volunteer organisation emerging from the SASS drop-ins. A range of asylum-seeker-led organisations and communities also emerged. 

Through the years, alongside the weekly drop-ins at the Brunswick, SASS has organised big public festivals during Refugee Week, countless anti-deportation campaigns, outings, trips, and barbecues, writing initiatives for storytellers and poets, book launch events hosted with Hafan Books, and even a football team, the Swansea World Stars, which played in competitive tournaments between 2003 and 2013. The World Stars were created and captained by Banire, and they won numerous awards in local leagues, with second hand boots and equipment from Swansea University. SASS had become an active and important community organisation such that in 2017 it was able to fund a full time employee and take over responsibility for Share Tawe, which was originally an independent project. Managing and sustaining the funding for an employee and all the activities has been a big new challenge SASS has risen to. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the weekly drop-ins have had to close. This was the heart of what SASS does. However, the community has made incredible efforts to connect despite the disconnection. Mobile phones have played an important part in sustaining the community. The Telephone Tree initiative helps asylum seekers talk to volunteers about how they are doing and what they need, who have been connecting people with food banks and other essential resources. SASS has also been organising donations to people’s doors, for example, for winter coats or shoes. Throughout the pandemic, English classes have continued online, and SASS has made efforts to address digital poverty by providing phone top ups. It can be difficult to reach everyone in need. The Home Office does not provide information about the asylum seekers in Swansea, where they are and what help they require. Despite this, SASS is a big, supportive community, connected with a broader network of organisations, institutions, and projects helping asylum seekers. Currently, there are about 80 registered volunteers, and even more supporters. SASS has played a vital part in supporting people through difficult times since 1999, but especially now.

Graphic by Wilber Eraldo, volunteer editor

More info about local organisations that support asylum seekers and refugees:

African Community Centre

City of Sanctuary

Swansea Council for Voluntary Service (SCVS) Better Welcome Project

Linden Church

Women 4 Resources

The Centre for African Entrepreneurship

Unity in Diversity

Hay, Brecon & Talgarth Sanctuary for Refugees

Congolese Development Project

Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales

Learning English with SASS

by Elif Erdem, Volunteer Editor

The SASS ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) Classes Project aims to provide learners with essential language skills through covering areas such as grammar, reading, speaking, listening and punctuation to be able to properly communicate in English. The Project is reaching 40 people each week. SASS is running 8 classes at the moment, two at beginner level, two intermediate, and three at advanced level. There is also one group especially made for women. 

There will be some exciting developments soon. A new advanced group will be starting, and 2 new volunteer teachers are about to join the team. Currently, there are 8 volunteer teachers, who meet every Friday to discuss what they can do more for learners, to share their teaching experiences, and to find solutions to any issues they face together.

A snapshot from the ESOL teaching team, February 2021

We spoke to some of the learners about their experiences. Lily, an advanced level learner said: ‘Their classes are really good. I mean the teacher George is really a real gentleman, approachable and supportive. I wanna say thanks for their help.’ In the same class, a Syrian learner agreed: ‘The classes are a space for learning, meeting friends and improving our English. The teachers are really helpful and cooperative, devoting much of their time to answering our questions.’ An intermediate level learner from Turkey said, ‘the teacher is well-prepared for classes and really experienced about teaching skills, arrange his speech according to our level and we can easily understand the classes.” Kristina from Russia expressed her thanks: ‘I’d like to say a big thanks to SASS and especially to George the teacher for English classes they provide. It’s a big pleasure to meet our group every week. These lessons not only improve my English but also help me to overcome the isolation. Thank you.” These are sentiments echoed by Yonatan and many others.

Ways to contact Migrant Help

 

 

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Ways to contact Migrant Help

  1. The First Response Centre phone line 0808 8010 503
  2. Webchat (https://ellis.custhelp.com/app/chat/chat_launch)
  3. Email / Ask a Question (https://ellis.custhelp.com/app/ask/session)
  4. Self-service portal (https://ellis.custhelp.com/app/utils/login_form)

If you have reported an urgent issue to Migrant Help but have not received a response, you can escalate the issue to a manager:

  1. For issue reporting which covers maintenance, requests for assistance, problems with payments, lost aspen cards and complaints please try our email / ask a question or live chat using the links in point 2 and 3.

If you do not have the facility to use this then please email the escalations inbox below.

  1. escalations@migranthelpuk.org for cases that need escalating to a manager for the following: asylum payment issues, section 98 ‘S98’ and section 4 ‘S4’ (please also see point 7), negative move. Please also use for the following that have not been submitted to the Home Office – section 95 ‘S95’, change of circumstance applications ‘COCs’ and additional support applications.
  2. S98@migranthelpuk.org – for requested evidence relating to S98 applications. As a temporary measure you can request an urgent call back for S98 IA and S4 applications if you are unable to get through by phone.
  3. Submissions@migranthelpuk.org – for communications relating to section 95, section 4, COCs that have been submitted to the Home Office.
  4. outreach@migranthelpuk.org – to request assistance from Migrant Helps outreach team for service users who have specific needs, are at risk or unable to use the above methods.
  5. ASCorrespondence@migranthelpuk.org – to be used for all communications relating to asylum support including supporting documents for support applications such as S95, S4 and COC’s.
  6. positivemoveon@migranthelpuk.org – to report / raise issues with our positive move on service. This can also be used to request reinstatement for BRP / Discontinuation letters not received following a positive decision on the service users asylum case.
  7. To raise a formal complaint about Migrant Help, our subcontractors, the accommodation providers and the Home Office please contact us using the below:
  8. https://www.migranthelpuk.org/forms/complaint-form-1