Churches bring hungry refugees in from the cold

Click to follow
The Independent Online
This Christmas, hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers will be fed and helped by Christian groups because many are now not eligible for benefits. And for the first time in 50 years, the Red Cross will be distributing food parcels in Britain - to 200 asylum-seekers who attend a day centre in south London.

The changes in the benefits laws introduced by the Govern-ment were opposed by Cardinal Basil Hume and the Arch- bishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and now churches in many parts of the country are trying to mitigate the effects of the new rules. The Bible is much clearer about asylum-seekers than about sexual morality: "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong" God said to Moses; and later: "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

In one of the dingy suburban streets of Brent in north-west London, a church hall has become a meeting place and feeding station for some of the 1,200 refugees in London left stranded by the present regulations. It is one of many such shelters. There is one in Brixton, south of the Thames, to which people have walked five miles for a meal. At the Welcare centre in Brent, they provide food parcels, communal meals once a week for up to 120 people, about half of them children, and legal services and help with welfare bureaucracy to many more.

Although the Court of Appeal decided last autumn that local authorities had a duty to help save such people from destitution, this decision is being appealed against by the Government, and in the meantime, the levels of support being offered are hardly generous. The Church Urban Fund, an Anglican charity set up in 1985, knows of one mother with two children who is given pounds 2 a day to feed them all, and another man expected to live on a diet of bread and milk.

Peter Stobart, who set up the Brent Welcare centre, came there from Hong Kong, where he had worked for 10 years with people who slept on the streets. Out there, he said, people simply died if they had no family to look after them. In London, things were still better than that. "The ones who come here have all got a roof over their heads. At the moment nobody has ended up out on the street; yet," he said.

Many of the refugees have left scenes of considerable horror. One 20- year-old Angolan had fingers chopped off while being tortured. In another Angolan family a nine-year-old boy was killed and his mother raped in front of the other children because their father - whom the attackers had come for - had fled.

Maha, an Iraqi woman in the Brent Welcare shelter, said that her husband had been a prosperous watchmaker, with two shops of his own, before he offended the secret police. They had tortured him; and when he was released from prison, the family liquidated what assets they had and paid $20,000 (pounds 12,000) to a Kurdish group which got them out of the country and into Britain on forged passports. It had taken three years for the Home office to decide that they were genuine refugees. They still had no work, although she was studying English.

It seemed from Maha's story that Christian churches had provided at least as much fellowship as the mosque had done, partly because they have access to much greater resources. Food parcels are sent to the Welcare project from churches all over the country. The Church Urban Fund says that the reaction to the Asylum Bill could be the biggest ecumenical project in Britain.