Juliet Stevenson, Michael Palin and the Archbishop of Canterbury are among the first of thousands across Britain to put time aside for refugees as part of a campaign to acknowledge their contribution to the country.
A group of charities – including Refugee Action and the Red Cross – is encouraging the public to carry out one of 20 "simple acts" during Refugee Week, which starts tomorrow. From inviting a refugee for tea, to cooking a foreign dish or learning another language, authors, comedians and actors have helped to complete more than 2,000 acts already, with thousands more expected as the week goes on.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who undertook one of the simple acts by spreading the word about the concept of refuge, said: "Receiving refugees is not a matter of somebody signing papers in some remote office. It's a matter of making friends with new neighbours; it's a matter of turning strangers into a part of the community, and that's done most just by treating them normally, as part of a fabric of the life of this country, this community."
According to the most recent figures, there are just under 300,000 refugees living in the UK. Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action, said: "The Simple Acts campaign is all about people taking one or two small, easy actions that will make a world of difference to the lives of refugees in the UK."
Refugee Week: Celebrities back campaign to make newcomers welcome with small gestures
Juliet Stevenson read a Nigerian story to children at Salusbury World – the country's first centre for refugee children. "I'm appalled by the way asylum-seekers and refugees are treated by our asylum system," she said. "It's a cruel and unjust system that infringes basic human rights. I had lots of fun reading to the children at Salusbury World and sharing stories from different cultures. I would encourage anyone to take part in a simple act, no matter how big or small, and to be proud of Britain's strong tradition of standing up for the rights of refugees."
Tea with a refugee
Politician and activist Tony Benn had tea with Rose, a lawyer who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo and gained refugee status in the UK five years ago. Benn said: "When people talk about refugees they think of them as people with no qualifications, when actually many are enormously qualified."
A national dish
Chef Fergus Henderson, famous for his use of offal at the St John restaurant he founded in London, spent an afternoon learning Eritrean dishes with a refugee called Lemlem. "Sharing food from different countries is one of the simplest ways to learn more about other cultures and identities," Henderson said.
Learning a language
Writer, comedian and actor Michael Palin learnt a few words with Somali refugee Musa. "Communication is so important, and I know from my experiences in other countries that a few words, some play-acting, smiles and laughter can go a long way towards breaking down barriers."
The comedian and writer Mark Thomas had his picture taken with Tendai (not his real name), a refugee from Zimbabwe. Thomas said: "The fear and antipathy towards asylum-seekers that we see at present is terrible. The scaremongering that often goes on is unwarranted and is completely un-British."
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