Birmingham 2017

St. Chad’s Sanctuary

One of the hidden treasures in Birmingham, right in the city-centre, is St. Chad’s Sanctuary. It is a voluntary project supported by Saint Chad’s Catholic Cathedral and the Salvation Army. It is a place of welcome and hospitality for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. At the moment about 150 come each week for practical items and a further 150 for English language classes.

Tears and joy
For the last two and a half years, I have taught English at St Chad’s Sanctuary. It is a place I have come to love very dearly. Yet speaking about my experiences there hasn’t always proved easy.

My experience of engaging with refugees and asylum seekers has been overwhelmingly positive. But these are among the most vulnerable of our society: people who have fled horrific situations in their home countries, undergone unimaginable journeys to get here, and continue to face suspicion and exclusion on arrival. How do I write of the joy they bring me without appearing to glory in their suffering? How do I explain that a place where my students’ descriptions of their lives can bring me close to tears, is a place of joy and life?

My students come from all over the world. Most have very little and have left much behind. But they all bring an intractable belief that something better is possible, and they still smile. They remain people of hope. Perhaps because they know real suffering, they also know the meaning of true hope: a hope which is tangible, even if it is hard to explain.

“It was difficult for me”
When telling her story, one of the students interspersed the account of leaving home, her journey, and her arrival in the UK with the phrase “it was difficult for me”, and I was struck at the time by what a spectacular understatement that was when talking about leaving all she knew, crossing the channel in a lorry “like a freezer”, and arriving in a place where she understood not a word of the language.

Crossing the Mediterranean in an completely unseaworthy boat, and having to eat plain rice for her first days in the UK in the hostel, were treated to one and the same “It was difficult for me”, creating a strange equality between what seem to be incomparable experiences. I struggle to explain, even to myself, why I found this equalising of the major and the minor strangely moving.

It was an understatement, no doubt, born of not having the complexity of language needed to even begin to express some of the horrors she had lived: and yet in it’s understated simplicity it somehow, perhaps expressed more than a much richer vocabulary might be able to say.

At 20, far from home
She has already etched
So much of life
On pages torn and tattered
And here and now
She dares to tell
A story, her story
That echoes a million others
Yet speaks
Of a journey all her own
A tale which glows with warmth
At the tender memory of a homeland
And the riches of a culture
Scarred and scared
Yet deeply loved
And deeply missed
In the midst of this
A narrative nightmare
Which does not flinch
Or turn away
From heavy truth
But speaks
With haunting honesty
Of the pain of loss and trembling fear
And bitter, biting cold
With these few words
The broken English stutter
Of a masterful understatement
“It was difficult for me”
But, pen poised, she knows
That this is not where the story ends
As with humble grace
She raises eyes of shining hope
To say
I am happy to be here.
I am free.
Steph Neville
(more of Steph’s poems can be found here)

Last updated: 5 May 2016

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Hidden Treasure 2017 in Birmingham