From the outside looking in, a co-operative may look like any other business but it’s how we operate that makes us different. Owned and run by our members, all co-ops share a set of values and principles. One of the core principles driving us is our commitment to the community – whether it’s aiding education about co-operatives and ethical issues, contributing to activities aimed at reducing food poverty, or supporting environmental action. Concern for the community is at the heart of Suma. We spoke to one of the local community centres we support to find out more about them.
Tell us a bit about you and the history of St Augustine’s
St. Augustine’s Centre, despite the name, has no religious or political affiliation. We are a vibrant community centre in Halifax founded in 1968 by Denise Keenan and originally set up as a pre-school church play group with a small team of volunteers. Sensing the community’s need, they extended the offering to include community lunches, English classes and social activities. From the early 2000s, people seeking asylum who were housed in Calderdale began to be supported by St. Augustine’s and, in 2009, we became an independent charity, welcoming anyone seeking sanctuary regardless of faith, ethnicity or background. We are now renowned for our holistic and person-centred approach, and we provide a safe and inclusive space. Together we are building a diverse community who can challenge injustice and support refugees and people seeking asylum to rebuild their lives with dignity.
What services do you offer and to who?
People who have fled their countries can come to us for practical support. We exist to help people through, what will probably be, amongst the hardest times of their lives. We have a support team who run an Advice drop-in centre and where we can offer one-to-one welfare support around a wide range of issues. Plus, our activities team organise English classes, art, music, wellbeing and sports activities, walking groups. befriending, and help finding out about the local area. We also run a Welcome Café where anyone can access a hot lunch on Monday and Thursday.
How can people access support?
When people arrive in the UK, they often don’t have any idea where they are or where they are going. Our coastguard will always rescue people but, if they haven’t already had their passport taken by traffickers, the home office will take it and give them a number before putting them through intense questioning and sending them off to initial accommodation, and then into hotels or housing. This often happens during the night, and they’re not told where they’re going. We travel to hotels around Calderdale to meet people and give them information about the support we offer, or they can drop into the Centre.
How has demand for your services changed over the years/ most recently?
Some elements of the media and some politicians portray the narrative they want people to believe. This skews people’s opinions and spreads untruths. Fleeing your country and seeking safety is not illegal. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.
Last year, however, the UK Government reneged on this commitment and the Nationality and Borders Act made it illegal to knowingly arrive in the UK without a visa. Of course, few people fleeing war and persecution have the means to apply for a visa.
They also want us to think that all the people who arrive here are single men when in fact 42% of the people supported by St. Augustine’s are women and children. The trauma they must go through to get here is not something anyone would choose lightly.
There are structures in place to support people fleeing the war in Ukraine and we wholeheartedly agree with the help provided, which includes granting refugee status from places outside our borders. However, in the past year, the UK has taken in around 240,000 people from Ukraine. Whereas, over the same period, only about 40,000 people have arrived in the UK from the rest of the world seeking asylum. Most of those applications have not yet been processed.
It makes you wonder why some countries appear to be helped more than others. Possibly it’s about cultural differences, but people fleeing danger from Syria, Iran, Eritrea and El Salvador, for example, need our help too.
Tell us about your volunteers, staff and members?
Nothing could function without our 180 volunteers, who are both centre members and people from our communities across Calderdale. Many of our centre members are experienced professionals – medics, teachers, technicians, cooks, and designers, for example. By law, people seeking asylum cannot be employed, yet they are keen to contribute their skills and we encourage as many as possible to volunteer. This not only provides much needed services, it provides useful experience for when applying for jobs in the future, and helps people feel valued.
We have centre members running a hair and beauty salon, and people working on tech, fixing phones and laptops. Plus gardeners, music, art and English classes. The food that is donated by Suma goes to the kitchen. Members cook meals that are then free to anyone in the community. Food donations make a massive difference as, in a lot of cultures, food is a love language. It’s not only a means of survival but a tool for community and connection.
We also have 18 staff, most of whom work around 3 days a week. A third of our team are people who have been through the asylum system and have first-hand, relatable experience which helps those seeking sanctuary.
How do people make donations?
Centre members are rebuilding their lives in the UK far away from their friends and family and in an unfamiliar system and culture. By donating funds to our vital projects, you can help them to feel welcomed and supported. We rely on fundraising and donations to continue our work. You can make one-off or regular financial donations via our website (www.staugustinescentrehalifax.org.uk) and we also welcome good quality, secondhand items such as suitcases, clothes and shoes, bicycles, phones, laptops and tablets. Your generosity helps us directly support people in need.
Do you have a list of shortages?
When people arrive in the UK, some don’t have anything, even shoes, and the journey here is traumatic for them. There are a lot of young people and a lot of very undernourished people arriving. So, we always need shoes and clothes, particularly for young people and teenagers, or in smaller sizes.
The basics are always great, but if you have any nicer, gift type donations they always go down so well.
(We all have that one family member who buys you the perfume you hate every Christmas!) We want to help people thrive as well as survive, and giving a person something that is going to make them feel good is invaluable.
Vodaphone provide us with free sims, but we need phones and tablets to put them in. After 6 months in the UK, young people can attend college and the right equipment can be life changing. We have a team here working on old or broken tech, so empty out that junk drawer and send your old phones and laptops our way!
Is there anything you don’t need or can’t accept?
We don’t need baby clothes and we already have period products donated by Hey Girls.
When it comes to toiletries and underwear, these are things we really do need. They need to be new though as we need to keep people clean and safe. We also can’t take furniture or big electricals, due to lack of space. (If you do have these items to donate locally, we’d recommend contacting Project Colt)
Something else that happens is that people will have a seasonal clear out. So, in winter, they’ll clear out their summer clothes. We are always grateful for any donations, but out of season clothes aren’t always useful as we have limited storage. Also, people may have come from countries with a much warmer climate that here, so even in summer they may want to be wearing more layers than we would.
Anything else you’d like everyone to know about you and the great work you do?
Without the support of our communities, we could not do what we do. We would like to thank every single person involved, for every penny they have given, every minute volunteered and every item donated.
The demand for our services increases daily. Please join us to help those who are experiencing trauma we can hardly imagine. By accident of where we are born, it could be any of us.