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.
More info about local organisations that support asylum seekers and refugees:
Swansea Council for Voluntary Service (SCVS) Better Welcome Project