Interview with Jemma Russell on City of Sanctuary
What is City of Sanctuary?
City of Sanctuary started in Sheffield in 2005 by a group that wanted a city-wide movement to welcome refugees and combat negativity towards refugees and asylum seekers. Since then it has spread to other cities and now cities can gain City of Sanctuary status. Leeds is launching its movement on the 11th of November. The hope is to bring organisations and individuals already doing positive actions for refugees and asylum seekers together as well as encourage others to take part who may not know much about refugee issues.
What made you get involved in City of Sanctuary?
I am a member of the Leeds University branch of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) and have been since I started university. I work with and for refugees and asylum seekers and have also participated in the Leeds Better Housing Campaign group that aimed to challenge providers of housing that weren’t adhering to their contracts. This campaign lost momentum but has been integrated into the City of Sanctuary movement.
What do you do to help welcome refugees and asylum seekers?
I am a volunteer at Common Conversation where I help teach English. This is a great place to meet people and support asylum seekers and refugees who may be experiencing isolation. I am also a STAR committee member and work with them to promote positive images of asylum seekers and refugees.
What inspired you to get involved and support refugees and asylum seekers?
There are many other valuable causes, such as the environment, that have lots of coverage and supporters. However, the isolation and destitution of refugees and asylum seekers is often relatively unkown by the public and there is little focus in the media. I wanted to do something also as important, if not more so, given the problems of destitution and isolation that go relatively ignored by most of the public. I also realised how easy it was to get involved and be supportive by carrying out small actions.
What will happen after the City of Sanctuary launch?
Those involved in City of Sanctuary realise that just getting individuals/organisations to sign promise pledges to be more welcoming won’t make Leeds more welcoming. It is the actual acts that people do that matter and that will create a welcome and hospitable environment. Therefore, we will aim to have monthly meetings for any individuals and organisations to get together, find out about volunteering, the work each other is doing, campaigning and fundraising. It will also be a place for refugees and asylum seekers to find out about services on offer to them. Hopefully, we could have English conversation classes running alongside this.
What will STAR be doing in the City of Sanctuary movement?
STAR are committed to getting the union to sign a promise pledge as well as students, societies and individuals with the aim of getting Leeds to become a University of Sanctuary. We will approach departments with ideas of actions they can do as well as submit motions to our Union forums and hope to build up momentum towards the University of Sanctuary goal. On top of this, we will carry on with our volunteering, campaigning and fundraising work.