By: Robbie Parkes, Jo Siedlecka
Around 200 representatives from faith and community groups attended a meeting, co-organised by Westminster Council and Westminster Refugee Welcome, at St James's Church, Piccadilly on Wednesday, 7 February. The evocative location was enhanced by 'Suspended', an exhibition by Arabella Dorman of children's clothes left by refugees landing on the Greek island of Lesbos as they fled from the brutal war in Syria.
At the start of the evening Rev Lucy Winkett, Vicar of St James pointed out some of the clothes - a tiny baby grow and little t shirts - wondering whether the child who wore them had survived the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
The event was intended to serve as a platform for Westminster Council to officially set out their intentions regarding the accommodation of refugees in the borough, under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS).
Chaired by Rev Winkett, the panel composed of those who were involved in announcing the council's intentions (Cllr Iain Bott and Jenny Travassos), promoting the scheme (Tania Bright of For Refugees), those who had taken in refugees as landlords, and groups who are supporting them, including Clare Burnett from Hammersmith and Fulham Refugee Welcome and Nic Schlagman, head of Social Action and Interfaith at West London Synagogue, and a refugee who told a moving story of travelling on foot through much of Europe with a sick child.
Under the Community Support scheme, groups who wish to sponsor a family must raise £9,000 as a fund to cover emergencies, and locate suitable accommodation. It was suggested that homes might be found for 50 refugees - but counsellors said they were not able to commit to this figure.
The councillors mentioned that the biggest challenge was finding affordable housing stock, and the appeal was made repeatedly for landlords who might be able to provide housing. The income stream would be secure and guaranteed, although at less than the average rent price normally commanded in the borough of Westminster.
Some participants questioned whether the council could be more proactive in helping refugees - thousands of which have been languishing in camps in Greece, Italy and France for several years now. This was powerful as there was near unanimous support from the audience for bringing Syrian refugees into Westminster, one of the nation's wealthiest boroughs.
Robbie Parkes from Westminster Refugee Welcome said he hopes a solution for the borough can be found. "There is a strong will from the grassroots to aid and welcome the refugees. It is up to all of us to find solutions," he said.
The meeting was concluded with a prayer by Canon Pat Browne from Holy Apostles, Pimlico - one of the Catholic parishes involved in the scheme.
Westminster Council support for Syrian Refugees
Family Link Up
Jesuit Refugee Services