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’.

If you are interested in setting up a refugee community sponsorship group in your area and would like to speak to someone further down the road in the process, then please do not hesitate to get in touch: I would also recommend reaching out to RESET and Sponsor Refugees for advice and guidance.