We too were asylum seekers

By Gertrudes Samson

‘Ger’ Samson, from Balintawak, Quezon City, is an architect by profession and went to England as a Columban Lay Missionary in 2010. Here she writes about her experience with asylum seekers in Birmingham.

When I first entered St Chad’s Sanctuary, a voluntary project of St Chad’s Catholic Cathedral, Birmingham, and the Salvation Army, I noticed at once the beautiful tapestry hanging at the right side of its main hall. It depicts the Holy Family on a journey with Mother Mary riding on a donkey while carrying baby Jesus and with St Joseph walking beside them. I thought it was just a typical Christmas decoration, but the caption at the bottom read: ‘WE TOO WERE ASYLUM SEEKERS’. It depicts the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt from the persecution of Herod who wanted to kill baby Jesus. That tapestry explained to me in a nutshell what St Chad’s Sanctuary is about and the value of its work.

Asylum seekers are persons fleeing persecution in their homeland, have arrived in another country, made themselves known to the authorities, and exercised the legal right to apply for asylum. St Chad’s Sanctuary ministers to them and to others who are far from home. It offers friendship and hospitality to asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants. We try to give them listening, non-judgmental and compassionate hearts that respect human dignity irrespective of culture, faith, or background of the person. The sanctuary is operated by one full-time manager, Sr Margaret Walsh IJS, and part-time volunteers like me.

Gertrudes Samson (L) with co-workers Jayjay, Rose, and Fr Patrick Sayles

You might ask what else we do at the Sanctuary aside from listening to and talking with people. Actually we have many works. The following are only some of the opportunities I get to help out with in various ways with other volunteers:

  • sitting down with the asylum seekers in English classes to help them catch up with the lessons given by the teacher, especially during the drills or exercises;
  • one on one tutoring with those who don’t even know the basics of English, ie, Pre-Entry Level, because they would have a hard time catching up if placed at once in Level 1, the ‘Survival English’ class; we start with such basic things as the Roman alphabet and reading the clock;
  • preparing and offering coffee or tea and biscuits (cookies) for those who come to the Sanctuary;
  • washing dishes;
  • sorting and organizing many piles of donated clothes to ensure they are clean and still useful and not rags;
  • sorting and repacking donated foods and ensuring that they have not yet reached their ‘sell-by’ date;
  • distributing donated food bags, clothes, and household items to asylum seekers;
  • recording data and statistics about the work of the Sanctuary,
  • cleaning up the Sanctuary work areas and premises.

Honestly speaking, at the end of every day I feel very tired because there is so much work to do in the Sanctuary because volunteers are so few. But definitely, I am happy! – for the many people I have met from more than 80 different nationalities; for the loving friends I have gained in the persons of Sr Margaret, other volunteers, and asylum seekers; but most of all, because of the opportunity God has given me to serve Him there . . . for Jesus said, ‘I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’. Although I was not born at the time when Jesus and His family were still asylum seekers, I know I am serving Him at the Sanctuary in the person of every asylum seeker I meet. With that in my heart, I know . . . Jesus is happy with us too in St Chad’s Sanctuary – my place of ministry.

You may email the author at ger_samson@yahoo.com