Conference shows how churches can welcome New Scots
Published on 4 April 2023 5 minutes read
As migration and the question of how the UK treats people seeking asylum dominate headlines, Christians from a wide range of backgrounds gathered to discuss their role in welcoming New Scots.
The Journeying with New Scots conference, hosted by St Mark's Parish Church in Stirling, was aimed at helping church leaders and members from all denominations, as well as members of other faiths, help build a community with people seeking asylum and refugees (New Scots).
Organised by Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees (SFAR), the Church of Scotland and Faith in Community Scotland, the day of talks and workshops included first-hand accounts of the experiences of New Scots and those who welcomed them, along with the opportunity to make new connections and explore practical ways of giving support.
Introducing the day's proceedings, Professor Alison Phipps, who is UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration at the University of Glasgow, an ambassador for the Scottish Refugee Council and a member of the Iona Community, spoke about the new rules which the UK Government is planning to introduce. Under the proposals, anyone who enters the UK illegally will be barred from claiming asylum.
"There have been easier times to seek sanctuary in this country than we are facing at the moment," Professor Phipps said.
"But we do not give up hope. We walk in hope."
Rev Barry Hughes, the minister at St Mark's spoke about how the local community in Raploch had welcomed New Scots from many locations in the time he has been with the church.
"Our Scout group has 60 members," he said.
"The children who come here have roots in no fewer than 16 countries, which gives some idea of the community we have here."
Some of these new arrivals have gone on to play an active role in St Mark's.
One of the community
Among them is Eman Musa, who is originally from Sudan, but arrived in Scotland with her children Shere and David after 13 years in a refugee camp in Egypt.
Speaking about her experiences since coming to Scotland, she described the supportive St Mark's congregation as being like her other family.
"I do not feel a stranger. I am one of the community here," she said.
Sabine Chalmers, co-ordinator of multi-faith partnership SFAR, pointed out that many refugees and people seeking asylum are from diverse faith backgrounds and churches are playing a big role in offering support and welcome.
"Churches are a place of welcome and a home," she explained.
"Sometimes, if someone is coming into a secular culture, it can be overwhelming, so a church can be a safe place and somewhere that feels familiar.
"Churches are existing places of community that have an opportunity to offer long-term support for people looking for friendship and connection. There is a real place for churches in the work of integration."
One church already doing so is Dalgety in Fife, where new minister, Rev Andrea Fraser, said she was pleased to hear stories of local people trying to make links with Ukrainians, whether by offering hospitality or swapping contact details over a cup of tea or a slice of cake.
"People would say: ‘If you are here and you have no friends, let me put my number into your phone.' Our youth group has just wrapped their arms around these Ukrainian kids. The really nice thing about that was that the Ukrainians hadn't started school yet, so when they did start school, they already had friends because they had met them in our support group," she said.
The Journeying with New Scots conference also included the screening of videos produced by Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees and Faith in Community Scotland under the title Journeys of Faith and Welcome.
These highlight the role of churches in working with refugees and people seeking asylum, and personal stories from those seeking refuge in Scotland and finding hope and belonging in the local church community. The whole series can be found on the SFAR website here.
There was also discussion of how more practical help could support asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland, such as the provision of free bus passes. For asylum seekers on a weekly allowance of £45 (and much less in some cases), transport costs can be a major daily expenditure, leaving little to spare for food or other essentials.
Among those attending the event was the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, who said the day had left him feeling anger, frustration and admiration, all wrapped into one.
"I had a distinct feeling of helplessness – how do you fix something that has just been so prevalent in our world for so long? But yet, there are people who are not just wanting to make a difference, but are making a difference," he said.
One of the organisers, David Moodie, churches support officer with Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees, said he was very happy with how the event had gone.
"It was lovely to see such a diverse group of people, people from different churches and New Scots as well, and it was lovely to see so much engagement with the themes we were raising," he said.
He also believes the Church of Scotland is uniquely placed to offer support to New Scots.
"The Church of Scotland is present in every community," he said.
"Every part of the country has its own parish. What a difference it would make if, no matter where New Scots end up in the country, there is a church community that wants to welcome them and help them find friendships and belonging.
"I think there is still more to be done to make connections and reach out to people, but when we do, there is so much potential for relationship building."
There will be a follow-up online event to the in-person conference on 10 May 2023.
Churches across Scotland are also being encouraged to join others worldwide in celebrating Sanctuary Sunday on 25 June 2023. This is the last Sunday during Refugee Week and after World Refugee Day and provides an opportunity for prayer and reflection on the issue of displaced persons.
Keep an eye out for more information and register to hear more by visiting the SFAR website.