“I so happy to see you!” My Iranian friend Mary gave me a big hug when we met recently near Victoria in central London.
We had met for the first time at a migrants’ hostel in Calais in 2019.
She had arrived in the UK on a small boat with her husband and family in August this year, after three attempts at crossing.
“What was it like?” I asked, curiously.
“Cold, wet, dark. Four hours!” she exclaimed in her limited English.
“My eyes closed whole time – frightened!”
I never asked Mary why they fled Iran where she was an accountant for her husband’s building firm. Their Christian faith might be a clue: Iran is known for
its intolerance of minorities. They are in a hotel near Victoria Station awaiting housing, to begin rebuilding their lives. 90-plus London hotels accommodate asylum seekers, placed there by the government, alongside the ‘regular’
homeless, during the pandemic.
With boat crossings continuing, no wonder disused army barracks are now being used as well. Another Iranian ‘boat’ family I know, 20-year-old Michael and his mother, are rehoused in a Liverpool suburb, where he hopes to resume
science studies at a college. He’s confident, cycling around the city, but when visiting, I wonder how his mother will cope, with little English and health problems, in an 11th floor flat. Miraculously, life has moved on positively since
Calais for both these families. I don’t believe the myth of Britain as a ‘crowded island which can’t take any more’. Of the 70 million refugees across the world, the UK accepted under 20,000 last year. Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda ranked highest of the hosting countries – the UK twentieth. All countries must accept some responsibility, and factor it into the economy like other forms of need.
But life is tough right now. We all know people who are struggling to survive Covid-19 and the economy.
How can we stretch our compassion further? Cardinal Nichols recently cited the community sponsorship scheme, where we welcomed 20,000 Syrian families. The campaign group, Safe Passage, has received over 1,000 pledges
from local authorities to foster unaccompanied migrant minors. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Pope Francis declared: “Each migrant has a name, a face and a story”.
We can’t personally, or even nationally, welcome 70 million. But we can each welcome a Mary or a Michael, and consider cutting the national cake into fairer shares!
Barbara Kentish is a member of Westminster Justice and Peace and co ordinator of ‘People not Walls’.