'It's about valuing people who might not be valued elsewhere,' says Penny Walker, one of the founders of the Coventry Refugee Centre, of her work with the refugee community.

By Geraldine Royds 


'In 1998-99 Kosovan and Afghan refugees started coming to Coventry, in the UK. I've always done practical and campaigning work - campaigning against the wars that create refugees and against the asylum system – as well as offering direct help,' she says.

By 2000, there were more than 1000 asylum seekers living in and around Coventry, waiting to find out if they could claim refugee status. Many were from places so dangerous they were frightened to go back. Being hungry and homeless in Britain was the only option and they often faced poverty, intimidation and a lengthy legal process before their claim was accepted.

Penny saw there was a desperate need for somewhere asylum seekers could turn to for help and advice.  They also needed a place where they could meet other people, possibly from their own country, to give and receive support. Penny decided to open a drop-in centre.

She approached the city council. They offered her an empty shop in a small shopping precinct rent-free. Unfortunately, the ceiling collapsed before they could move in. This obliged them to search frantically for a new home. On 1 April 2000, based in a local church and staffed entirely by volunteers, they opened their doors.

With a couple of desks, two telephones and an old computer the Coventry Refugee Centre was in business. They provided help filling in forms, obtaining legal advice, dealing with immigration, getting access to housing, schools and English lessons.  They collected bedding, pushchairs, household items and clothing, which hung on chains strung across the back of the shop. People using the centre began to help each other, especially with interpreting.  Before long, there was a volunteer network of asylum seekers and refugees offering each other language support and advice.

Penny treated everyone who came to the centre with respect and compassion. This was in sharp contrast to the prejudice and open hostility meted out to refugees by the authorities and local community.

'There was real hardship,' says a volunteer who worked at the drop-in centre at that time. 'The government had brought in a voucher system for living expenses, but it didn’t work very well. Many people were left without food.  Attitudes towards the refugee community were appalling and Penny worked really hard to change that. She also linked the centre to other services and groups. One of the most important things was to find someone who valued them at a time when everything else was against them. Someone who wanted to help, who said, loudly, that racial harassment, lack of healthcare, extreme poverty, and so on, wasn’t acceptable.'

Within a year they had attracted funding from the Department of Health. This allowed them to employ two part-time workers to support the volunteers. They were able to extend their activities to include working in the community. Specifically this meant increasing understanding of refugee issues and co-ordinating with local people who wanted to help but were unsure of how best to go about it.

The Coventry Refugee Centre has since grown into a major organisation. It provides help to thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. From having two part-time employees, they now employ forty people. There are one hundred and ten active volunteers, offering a variety of services to over five hundred people a week.

In 2003, Penny Walker left the centre to concentrate on activities for the Coventry Peace House, of which she is a founding member. Started in 1999, it is a housing co-op and a base for community projects. These include a catering social enterprise, a recycling centre and 'World Wise', a peace education centre that also works with excluded young people.

Meanwhile, Penny continued to campaign for peace, defend asylum rights and work for the refugee community, especially with awareness raising events such as Refugee Week and Peace Month. 

Changes in legislation in 2002 and again in 2004 created serious problems for asylum seekers. The new laws removed their right to work and stopped them claiming the meagre government benefits which helped with food and housing. As a result hundreds of people faced destitution and a life on the streets.

As Ali from Somalia writes in the book I came here for safety, 'With nowhere to stay or call home, not being allowed to work and support yourself, the only thing left is to roam the streets and that’s when one becomes vulnerable. I, for a couple of times, have been victim of violent assault, being beaten up for no fault of my own… hope runs out and desperation, destitution and distress are all that is left.'

In 2004, Penny and other members at the Peace House decided to open a Night Shelter. They partitioned their largest room (a conference room by day) to create separate sleeping areas for men and women. Open from 9.30pm to 8.00am, it offers a welcome and meal, which is provided by a local Sikh temple. It is supported by volunteers and financed exclusively by donations.

Penny says, 'The night shelter is a last resort, simply better than being on the streets. The guests sleep on the floor in very crowded conditions. But despite difficult circumstances, with no right to work or claim benefits, people display an amazing ability to cope. Sometimes the reality of their situation becomes too much, however. Crammed together, they get depressed or frustrated. But mostly they are pleased to come home at night to a place where they are guaranteed a welcome.'

Penny provides the continuity: 'I'm in the house most nights, and am always available on the end of a phone if a volunteer needs me. It only works because I live here - it wouldn’t work if I lived half a mile down the road.'

In I came here for safety, published online by the Peace House, Penny Walker and her associates describe the reality of life for asylum seekers in the UK and talk about their work.  

'The work is hard work but rewarding. Transforming our own attitudes and understanding is as important as the other work of lobbying, campaigning, education and practical assistance. The suffering unveiled in this book is bleak an d depressing; it reflects very badly on our society. There are no easy solutions in the current political climate, and it is very tempting to turn away from it all and ignore it. In doing so we would fail in our responsibility to help refugees and we would also lose the opportunity to find our common humanity.'

With thanks to Martin Newell at Peace News.

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