Justice First, a charity based in the Tees valley area supporting refugees who have been refused permission to stay in Britain, made a three-day visit to Minsteracres recently with a group of clients.
“If you get a final refusal to remain in Britain you are evicted from your accommodation, you cannot work and you cannot receive public funds. Even after the decision, some of our clients cannot be removed perhaps because their country of origin refuses to accept them, or their route of return is blocked because it is too dangerous. People become effectively stateless and completely unsupported.” explains Pete Widlinski, Justice First’s manager.
“Just because you’ve been refused leave to stay, it doesn’t mean you haven’t got a valid claim, so we help people to research fresh evidence for a new claim. Once a new claim is submitted, support is reinstated while the case is considered.”
Justice First works closely in partnership with other agencies across Teesside to address everything from the practical problems faced by refugees, to the mental health problems caused by the stress and trauma they have experienced. The charity is supported by a group of around 35 volunteers both office based and in the field, including a former immigration judge who reviews refused cases to see if a challenge can be launched.
It goes without saying that for their clients, a marginalised group demonised by the media and receiving little sympathy in their local communities, the idea of a holiday is unimaginable. So to find themselves in the Northumberland countryside enjoying a few rare days of sunshine away from the stresses of their everyday lives, was some kind of miracle.
Many came with their children, the youngest only 11 months old. “I’m so happy,” said one mother. “My four year old daughter is really excited. She’s talking to people and making friends. I’ve been remembering my village and everything I’ve missed.”
Another woman says, “Mostly I’m indoors at home. I’m a really closed person, but here I’m able to do activities with other people. Everyone is very friendly and have made us very welcome.”
Picking up the theme, another adds, “Here I feel really happy and confident. At home there is too much stress and I feel very down.”
Yet another says, “I’m very pleased to meet other people from different countries. We’re like a family. I was alone, hesitant to make friends, but everyone has been friendly and welcoming. Yesterday I had a massage for the first time – I slept very well!”
For the children, as Pete Widlinski points out, “This visit gives them a narrative for when they go back to school. They often feel excluded because they don’t have the same things others do. This time they’ll be able to say they went to a hotel for their holiday. They won’t feel so left out.”
For one man, the visit to Minsteracres was even more profound. Born to Catholic and Muslim parents, he was brought up Catholic and excluded by his Muslim family . He has found his way to Britain while trying to get back to his wife and children in Papua New Guinea. Somewhere along his journey he lost his faith. He hasn’t put down roots because all he wants is to be back with his family.
At Minsteracres though, he has found something he’s lost. “It’s beautiful. It’s like a small heaven. For six years I haven’t prayed, then I went into the church yesterday and a miracle happened – when I came out my solicitor called to say I have a new court date in November.
“Faith brought me here to find my way back to myself.”