Alice Sachrajda

Creative researcher and storyteller

Being the change: My refugee community sponsorship journey

Two years ago, on a chilly, autumnal evening, I dashed out of my home to attend a meeting round the corner at a friend’s house. “Don’t worry, I’m just going to find out some more about it,” I reassured my husband. “I’m already really busy, I won’t take on too much, I promise!” I was heading to a meeting about setting up a refugee community sponsorship group in our area. Several hours later I sheepishly walked through the door of our home. “Erm, I agreed to be the co-chair” I announced, “it will all be fine – I promise!”

Several weeks later, Ruth – my new co-chair, and I arranged to meet for coffee. We had agreed to take on the rather momentous task of running a community sponsorship group together, without knowing one another and with just our conviction and enthusiasm carrying us forward. I was wearing one of my favourite jumpers with the words ‘Stay Positive’ scrawled across it. Ruth turned up in a jumper with ‘Winging It’ emblazoned across the front. I knew from that first meeting that we were going to be an excellent team. We have complimentary skills and are both very much on the same page around creating a warm, supportive environment for all the volunteers in our group. We both recognise that when you’re volunteering life can sometimes (well actually, often) get in the way. And, for the record, I’d like to point out that I’ve since discovered that, far from winging it, Ruth is an expert communicator and collaborator and has a wealth of experience working in the public sector, all of which has proved extremely valuable for our group.

With last week’s horrific tragedy of migrant deaths in the Channel still etched in our minds, it’s hard not to feel a total sense of despair about the state of the world. But, if you’re feeling this way, then I’d urge you to find out more about refugee community sponsorship, it is truly a shining light. Local groups all across the UK are forming to welcome a refugee family to their area, under a government-endorsed scheme. Every family welcomed in this way is in addition to the numbers of refugees the Government has already agreed to settle. It may seem like a drop in the ocean, but it can make a tremendous difference to an entire family, who might otherwise face an interminable wait in a refugee camp. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a serious undertaking and there’s lots of work involved, all in a voluntary capacity. But it’s also hugely practical and everyone can play a role in a group, no matter how small that may be.

So, if I’ve piqued your interest about community sponsorship, here are the key steps you’ll need to take on your journey:

1/ Form a group, or join an existing group in your area. Most groups are delighted to have more volunteers (our group, Forest Hill and Sydenham Welcomes Refugees (FHSWR), certainly is!). Some groups are set up within faith communities or an existing group or collective. Others, like ours, is a motley collection of friends and neighbours. Early on we allocated key roles (such as chairs, safeguarding leads, finance, fundraising, house search lead etc.). As our group has grown, we’ve been able to expand with other roles, such as a volunteer coordinator, housing officer, health, education, languages and benefits leads etc. We are now looking for more volunteers to join our group, particularly people who have daytime availability and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) experience.

2/ Appoint a Lead Sponsor. All community sponsorship groups need to have a Lead Sponsor who will act as a guarantor and help with the application and welcoming process. We are supported by Citizens UK, through its Sponsor Refugees Lead Sponsorship programme. They’ve provided invaluable support every step of the way and run informative training sessions. Refugee resettlement charity, RESET, also offers support and guidance to community sponsorship groups, as well as to the Lead Sponsor organisations themselves.

3/ Raise £9,000. Yes I know, that’s a lot to raise – I hear you! But actually, believe it or not, this wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be, especially given that we raised the last third of our funding during the global pandemic. Kudos to our wonderful lead fundraiser! This money will tie the family over until their housing benefits and other financial assistance is in place. It will also cover the costs of interpreters and immediate practical items like equipment for babies and children, school clothes etc. So, several sponsored runs, some generous donations and a quiz night later, we’d exceeded our fundraising target. More info on our fundraising page here.

4/ Find a house where the family will be able to live for two years. You’ll need to find a landlord who’s willing to accept housing benefit payments. Or enlist the support of your local housing association. Or maybe even sweet talk a wealthy friend/relative/neighbour who has a house they’d be prepared to rent to a refugee family (we all live in hope!) But, with patience and perseverance groups will eventually find a place for a refugee family to call home. We were delighted to receive the offer of a house from some local residents who are moving abroad for a couple of years (they heard about our group from our Twitter feed). It’s a lovely, cosy, three-bed house close to a park and a local primary school – just perfect for a family.

5/ Complete the Home Office application form. As a government-run scheme you will need your application approved by the Home Office. It’s a detailed and comprehensive form where you outline how you will support the family in all areas of their new life, such as health, education, benefits, employment, learning English and acclimatising in the UK. You will also need to contact your Local Authority and ensure that they have no objections to your group welcoming a family in your area. Once you’ve submitted your form to the Home Office you will have a meeting with a Home Office official who will approve your application, subject to any necessary amendments. We are happy to report that we found this to be a useful and pleasantly welcoming and supportive process!

6/ Attend training and complete DBS checks. All groups need to attend training to ensure that they have all the knowledge and expertise to welcome and guide a family. These are expertly run by RESET and they (and your Lead Sponsor) will support you to put together necessary policies (such as on safeguarding, complaints and volunteer engagement). All members of the group who will have contact with the family need an enhanced DBS check, which is coordinated by the Lead Sponsor.

So, there you go, that’s the journey so far. Our group has raised all the necessary funds, we’ve received ‘Approval in Principle’ from the Home Office and the landlords have confirmed that the house will be available for a refugee family for two years. Hoorah! We were thrilled to reach this milestone, particularly as it’s been challenging to keep the momentum in the midst of the pandemic. Our group is currently working through the training, getting our DBS checks and putting together a welcome pack for the family. We’ve re-submitted our application to the Home Office for ‘full approval’, which means soon we will be matched with a family.

Being part of a community sponsorship group has brought me closer to my community. I love the diversity of our group – we are a range of ages, with many different backgrounds, faiths, experiences and professions. It’s a privilege to collaborate with such a fantastic team with a formidable set of combined skills. What unites us all is a love of our area and a shared desire to make a difference to a family. I’ve also seen how community sponsorship is a very infectious concept. Our group was set up because of Forest Hill and Sydenham residents being inspired by the neighbouring areas of Herne Hill and Peckham, which had both set up community sponsorship groups. This ripple out effect has tremendous potential. The more groups that are set up, the more families we can welcome, and the more groups will form, and so on. What if, in June Jordan’s words, we are the ones we have been waiting for?

Sometimes when I’m out walking my dog in our nearby park, I find myself daydreaming about the family who will come to live in our area. We haven’t even been matched yet, but I know that somewhere there is a family out there that we will welcome and support to build a new life in the UK. I expect there’ll be an element of ‘winging it’ and a healthy dose of ‘staying positive’, but our group certainly has all the necessary dedication, expertise and guidance to make it happen. After all, we’ve always had absolute confidence in our ability to welcome a family. We’ve never talked about ‘if’ a family will come, it’s always been ‘when’.

Power of Pop: How popular culture drives power, opportunities and potential for social change

By Alice Sachrajda and Marzena Zukowska , co-authors of New Brave World, produced with the support of Unbound Philanthropy. With thanks to Shaun Campbell at Studio Scamps for the fantastic design of the New Brave World report and the stunning illustrations!

We all know the feeling: You’re part way through a riveting television series completely captivated by the characters as the story unfolds. Or, controller at the ready, you’re all set to immerse yourself in a fantasy gaming world, which you alone have the ability to direct. Or, popcorn in hand, you’re getting stuck into a recently released film that everyone has been talking about. 

All of these experiences lead us into a captivating lull, an absorbing state of mind that we love to experience. There is tremendous power encapsulated in these moments. Instead of feeling like we’re being directly communicated to through a megaphone, we feel like we’re unwrapping a gift. We experience a heady curiosity that appeals to our imagination and intelligence. Clever creatives weave their storytelling magic in powerful, even addictive ways. They give you two plus two, not four, and we simply cannot get enough of it. 

There is a collective power too. We become part of a community – or a fandom – who are all experiencing the same narrative. Together our minds open up to new scenarios and ideas. Aficionados of Game of Thrones (described as the biggest and most popular show in the world) will be familiar with Tyrion Lannister’s perceptive words in the series finale, which capture this sentiment exactly: 

“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”

Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

So, what does this mean to those of us who are striving for social justice? How can we tap into this tremendous source of collective narrative energy and use it to scale social change? 

Continue reading “Power of Pop: How popular culture drives power, opportunities and potential for social change”

From Megaphone to Mosaic: Five principles for narrative communications

This is an edited extract from a piece I published with Thomas Coombes, of Hope-Based Comms on Medium. Read the full piece here. 

A Larger Us messaging house

How can civil society groups and charities apply narrative work in practice? Based on our work with migration groups in the UK during the pandemic, we believe a crucial step is more narrative synergy between organisations that share the same values. 

Continue reading “From Megaphone to Mosaic: Five principles for narrative communications”

We can only be what we have the courage to see…

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There’s a page in my copy of Chip and Dan Heath’s book, ‘Switch, How to change things when change is hard’, which falls open without me having to try to find it. It’s like a well-thumbed favourite recipe in a much-loved cookery book. I have come back to that page over and over again. On it, the Heath brothers refer to researchers John Kotter and Dan Cohen who say that:

“Most people think change happens in this order: ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE. You analyse, then you think, and then you change.”

They go on to describe how, in a relatively simplistic setting that might work pretty well. If you need to reduce costs or cut time off your daily commute, for example. But then they go on to say something so revelatory that I think everyone who wants to see change in our society should reflect deeply on this insight:

Continue reading “We can only be what we have the courage to see…”

Are you sitting comfortably? How children’s stories can help us navigate our way through the unfolding Covid-19 saga

For those of us juggling caring responsibilities (working parents of toddlers, I salute you), these past few weeks have taken spinning plates to a whole new level. On the plus side, many of us have become even more adept at multitasking. Discussing strategic communications whilst hanging out the washing is my speciality…

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This strange time, where family and work intertwine, has got me thinking about all the wonderful fables and stories we share with our children. The tales that stand the test of time are powerful because of the underlying messages that are woven into the fabric of the story. They are more than words on the page.  They hold sway because of the way they make our children, and us for that matter, feel. More often than not, the lasting stories that are passed from generation to generation guide us as to how we can overcome adversity, and live well together.

And so, in the spirit of the work/family fusion that is the new normal, here’s a round up of children’s stories that get to the heart of this moment and help to guide us as to how we should be communicating the unfolding Covid-19 saga:

Continue reading “Are you sitting comfortably? How children’s stories can help us navigate our way through the unfolding Covid-19 saga”

Covid-19 – an unfolding story that hasn’t been written yet. How can we shape the narrative?


How do you feel right now? Upbeat, hopeful, motivated? I dearly hope so, but I’m willing to bet over the past few weeks you’ve experienced a flood of emotions that have made you feel anxious, upset, stretched and downright overwhelmed. Covid-19 is global and yet it’s local. It’s microscopic and yet having maximum macro-impact. We’re immobilised and yet frantically working. It’s confusing and unsettling to say the least.

But, and here’s the hopeful bit, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to catalyse on this moment of connection, and we must not let it slip through our fingers. The way we respond strategically, now and in the coming months, will shape how others refer to the story of this time, and how we relate to one another in the future.

Continue reading “Covid-19 – an unfolding story that hasn’t been written yet. How can we shape the narrative?”

Odyssey Stories #allthatweshare

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When I’m travelling on the London Underground, I often wonder at the magic of the tantalising stories all around me. Maybe I’m just irrepressibly curious, but I can’t help myself from thinking about the journeys of my fellow passengers. I imagine your life: where you’ve come from and where you’re going. I can see hints of your story in the expression on your face, in your choice of clothes, or in your reading material. I ponder your ups and your downs, your twists and turns. And I like to think about what we share – is it our sense of humour? Our favourite food? Being a sibling? A parent? A Londoner? A creative soul? A hopeful dreamer? 

Several years ago, Alex Glennie (my former IPPR colleague and long-time friend and collaborator) and I began to nurture the kernel of a new idea. We both share a fascination for the transformative power of stories, and we began to explore how we could share stories in public places. This was borne out of the belief that sharing stories helps us to understand one another better, and to live well together. In these early stages, we thought about the journeys we make every day, which, knitted together, make up the bigger picture of our life.

And then we hit upon the idea of sharing stories in travel locations. We reflected on our daily journeys: the time when we are not at home and not yet at our destination. It’s a place where we cogitate and muse, and travel locations are democratic spaces, where anyone can go. We began to ask ourselves: could we reflect on someone else’s life journey while we go about our daily journey? Could transport hubs play a role in connecting people as well as places?

Continue reading “Odyssey Stories #allthatweshare”

Pictures worth thousands of words – in praise of the graphic novel

I’ve been a fan of graphic novels ever since I forayed into writing Be Here Now while at IPPR. Admittedly you could hardly call Be Here Now a novel, a collection of illustrated short stories is more accurate. But experimenting with storyboarding my research findings, and then working with an illustrator to bring them to life, sparked my interest in this medium. Illustration takes a story into an exhilarating and absorbing new dimension. Graphic novels can powerfully layer insight and meaning through the tones, shading and visual depiction of emotion.


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Riding the Waves: Catalysing social and environmental change through pop culture

Guest blog for Dev Comms Lab, published May 2018

Unless you’re living as a hermit in the Outer Hebrides then the chances are pop culture is shaping your thoughts, feelings and ideas about the world around you. Whether it’s television, film, sport, fashion or food, our shared mainstream culture plays a fundamental role in shaping our identity and guiding our attitudes and beliefs.

Continue reading “Riding the Waves: Catalysing social and environmental change through pop culture”

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