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Salford leads the way as Church aims to welcome more refugee families

Syrian refugee families arrive on the Isle of Bute in 2015 (Getty)

The Diocese of Salford has appointed a full-time officer to help parishes host Syrian refugees.

Sean Ryan, the new officer, has led a pioneering scheme at the parish of St Monica’s, Flixton, which has been supporting a newly-arrived Syrian family since November. St Monica’s is the first parish in the country to join the Government’s Community Sponsorship Scheme. Cardinal Nichols has recently encouraged parishes to join the project.

Now, funded by donations from Catholics in the diocese, Ryan will take up a full-time post with Caritas Salford, helping parishes to get involved.

Ryan told the Catholic Herald that he and his fellow parishioners at St Monica’s became involved after seeing the plight of Syrian refugees in the news. “A number of people in the parish, separately but simultaneously, said, ‘This is not acceptable.’”

They joined the scheme, announced by the Home Office in July 2016, under which community groups can host a Syrian family. “Nobody knew how it was going to work, including the Home Office,” Ryan said. The parish effectively worked with the Government to develop the idea, and a team of volunteers produced a plan for supporting a refugee family.

Under the scheme, which parishes can sign up for on a Government website, the group is tasked with finding accommodation (though the rent will normally be covered by housing benefit) and offering help with basic goods, training, transport, and other support. The goal is to help the family to be independent, in a maximum of two years.

In November, St Monica’s welcomed a family of five, with three children under the age of 10, who had spent four and a half years in Lebanon after fleeing Syria. They arrived in November. The father is a chef, and has already found work, as well as volunteering as resident chef at a night shelter run by Manchester churches.

Ryan said the children were settling in well at school. He described the family as “heart-meltingly delightful”.

The families are selected for the scheme by the UN Refugee Agency, with the help of the International Organisation for Migration. They are chosen on the basis of need, but also, at least as the scheme begins, for signs that they are resilient enough to make a success of a new start in Britain.

Ryan has recently given a talk to officials in Westminster diocese to advertise the scheme. He will soon be giving talks to the dioceses of Lancaster and Shrewsbury, and has had interest from Liverpool.

On Sunday, Cardinal Vincent Nichols criticised the Government’s decision to accept fewer child refugees than expected, and urged Catholics to do more to support refugees.

Ryan said that the requirements are “not that onerous”, and that it should take about four months from a group forming to the Home Office approving the scheme. “You will find people will come forward who have the requisite skills,” he said. “You don’t need that many people. Money’s not a huge issue.” The Government requires a parish to show that they can potentially spend £9,000 over two years. But Ryan estimates that the real figure would be closer to £5,000 for many parishes, and points out that charities and diocesan funds may well be able to contribute.

Ryan said that, based on the experience of St Monica’s, the scheme can bring real benefits to a parish. “The most important message I would want to convey to parishes is: as well as transforming the lives of these people and generations to come in their families, you are also going to be transforming your own lives and the life of your parish. You will be blessed by this beyond measure and united by it. People will be more robust and proud of their faith and their community, and new people will come out of the woodwork. It is a wonderful blessing.”

Mark Wiggin, CEO of Caritas Salford, said: “Sean is a passionate advocate on how Community Sponsorship can change the lives of vulnerable refugees and the lives of local people who come forward to help. With Sean, I am confident we will increase significantly the number of parishes that come forward to be sponsors”.