From Manchester with Love

Chorlton people have been working together to send more than 30 aid containers to refugee camps in Greece. Linsey Parkinson talks to Sue Cockerill, from Refugee Aid Chorlton.

One of the best things about Chorlton is that so many of its residents are just quietly getting on with making a big difference for others. Sue Cockerill and her team of volunteers are an outstanding example. She, along with her Brookburn Road neighbours, was deeply moved by the plight of Alan Kurdi, the tiny Syrian child, washed ashore on a Turkish tourist beach in 2015.

“We felt we just had to do something,” she says. “We started out with a collection between friends and neighbours. The response was amazing and things grew almost too quickly for us to keep up: from a few bags at the start, I soon had a houseful of donations! We then joined forces with Warrington-based Care UK charity Refugee Aid North West, (RANW), who started out in exactly the same way as we did.

“Things work really well now – RANW Care UK has formal charitable status and we’re one of a number of affiliate ‘feeder’ groups. We raise cash, pack and sort donations locally, then take them to the warehouse in Cheshire, where the containers are prepared and shipped. Bike Right! (the cycling development company) give us free use of their van, for which we’re extremely grateful.

“We have a fantastic permanent base in Chorlton Central Church now: people can drop off donations and we can sort things out properly before taking them to Cheshire. We’re very lucky to have a huge pool of 50 or 60 fantastic volunteers we can call upon.

“We’ve been really affected by the plight of refugees who are stuck on the Greek Islands of Chios and Lesvos. Since the EU-Turkey migration deal, those people are stranded, struggling to survive in appalling conditions. They can’t go back, yet they can’t move forward either. They’re forced to rely on the kindness of local people and support from charities like ours. You don’t see the refugee crisis on the TV news any more, but things are getting worse, rather than better.

“We have great links with aid workers over there. Thanks to social media, we can literally see Chorlton’s donations unloaded at the camps and being handed to people in need.”

As well as sending supplies to the camps, Refugee Aid also does as much as it can for refugees in Manchester and Salford. When a person is granted refugee status – and therefore leave to remain – it’s only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of building a new life.

“These are smart, hard-working people with great dignity. They want to stand on their own two feet, not take state handouts. I’ve seen whole families crammed into single rooms without cooking facilities. Young men work long hours in warehouses or wherever else they can find jobs. Schools which can accommodate refugee children are always glad to have them: they also work very hard and go on to be high achievers.

“Unlike us, refugee people take nothing for granted. We help them get started with the basics: the first rung on the ladder. That might be helping with forms, signposting partner agencies, helping with housing, or providing furniture and appliances.

“We help out at Cornerstone Night Shelter in Hulme, which has become a support hub, offering English classes, a place away from the streets and supporting all sorts of integration needs. This is such a difficult country to navigate – especially if English isn’t your first language. Services are stretched to breaking point, however, and clients start queuing as early as at 6am to get access to good quality advice and information from the various charities supporting Refugees.

“We also work to support the Boaz Trust Night Shelter, which offers crisis help for women. If an asylum seeker is refused refugee status, they’re not eligible for any ‘formal’ help. They’re left destitute and penniless: it’s shocking that this can happen in a modern society.

“We’re not experts in welfare rights and benefits advice at Refugee Aid Chorlton, but we try to be responsive, flexible and do our very best. We’re currently lobbying Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, to make sure that refugee people aren’t overlooked in his plans to combat homelessness in Greater Manchester.

“We come across heartbreaking situations all the time. Everyone has a story and some of the children and young people we meet have been through so much. Many have been in terrible danger and travelled halfway around the world.

“Whenever I get angry and frustrated about the dehumanisation of refugees; the ungenerous nature of our leaders; the lack of foreign aid for the camps; the obstacles they face on arrival here – I could go on and on – I think of what a man from Syria said to me recently: ‘Don’t get angry, Sue. I’m safe. Nobody’s shooting at me; nobody’s trying to blow me up. I’m in a country where I feel that things will actually be OK.’”

There is hope.