REFUGEES who found a welcoming home in Sheffield after fleeing war and persecution were given an audience with Immigration Minister Damian Green.
Over the past eight years 560 people have been brought to the city from squalid refugee camps on the borders of Burma, Iraq, the Congo, Liberia and Somalia.
Sheffield was the first city in the country to become a City of Sanctuary, after the council agreed to accept refugees through the UK Border Agency’s Gateway Protection Programme.
Mr Green, visiting the Refugee Council in Sheffield ahead of next week’s Refugee Week, said: “One of the things we are most proud about in our system is the Gateway Programme where people living in camps, living often in terrible conditions, are allocated to Britain and we settle them in places that want them.
“Sheffield was the first place to volunteer, getting on for 10 years ago now, to become a City of Sanctuary.
“I wanted to come and meet some of the people who have benefited from Sheffield’s hospitality over the past eight years.
“I’ve heard stories of people making a success of their lives and giving something back.
“The thing about this project is everyone on it is a genuine refugee. It’s our moral duty to help the poorest and most wretched in the world.”
The Conservative minister talked to refugees about their experiences in their home countries and the refugee camps and how their life has changed since coming to Sheffield.
But he was challenged about his Government’s decision to cut funding for adult education for refugees and asylum seekers, which has led to the closure of Sheffield College’s community classes in Darnall, Tinsley, Manor and Burngreave.
Mr Green defended the decision to cut money for English-language teaching, despite his party’s insistence immigrants should learn English in order to integrate.
He said: “The economic situation which we inherited is such that you have to make savings.
“Britain was going broke fast and we have to spend every pound wisely in the future.
“The trick now is to find more efficient ways of finding ways or providing English language learning.
“Let’s find innovative ways to allow newly arrived refugees to get some knowledge of English so they can get on.
“I was discussing with the people here today how the individual communities themselves can help with this, because the era when if you had a problem you could just pour more taxpayers money at it is over.”
Jim Steinke of the Northern Refugee Centre in Sheffield said: “The Gateway Protection Programme is a great way to bring people into the country.
“But it is a small minority of people who come in like this. Many more come through the very fraught route of applying for asylum.
“To put things in perspective 750 a year come to Britain through the Gateway Programme, 35,000 are given asylum status each year and many more are going through the application process.”
Akoi Bazzie, aged 35, from Liberia:
“I left Liberia when I was 14 and went to a refugee camp in Guinea. I was in the camps for 12 years.
“It was unspeakable. There was no clean water and there was a lot of illness.
“I came to Sheffield in March 2004 through the Gateway Programme and got my first paid job in 2005.
“Now I work for the Refugee Council helping other people who arrive in this city.
“The UK’s tradition of protecting people in need has a great impact on individuals like me.”
Esperance Matungiro, aged 18, from the Congo:
“I lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda since 1996. I went to the camp when I was five.
“I arrived in Sheffield in January 2011 with my daughter, my mother, three sisters, my brother and two nieces.
“I was very surprised when they said I could come here.
“Everyone is so friendly here - it is wonderful.”
Esther Freeman, aged 40, from Liberia:
“I came to Sheffield in the first Gateway Programme in 2004 and had been in a refugee camp in Guinea for 20 years.
“I came with my two daughters and a son and I was then reunited with my other daughter, who I had not seen for eight years.
“I never thought I would see her again, it was amazing.
“I started work as a cleaner for HSBC but I wanted to help people. Now I work as a carer in the NHS.
“I couldn’t be more grateful to the UK government and the Refugee Council for their support. The Gateway programme changed my family’s life.”
Khun Saing, aged 57, from Burma:
“In my country I was a political activist. I was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
“I fled to Thailand with my wife and my son and lived in a refugee camp at Mae Sot.
“In October 2007 I was given refugee status by the UN High Commission for Refugees and came to Sheffield.
“My family’s application for refugee status is still being processed and they are still in Thailand.”
Kuku Daniel, aged 41, from Liberia:
“I left Liberia and went to Guinea. Liberia is English speaking but Guinea is French, it is very different.
“It was terrible - they didn’t like us there and refugees are tortured and murdered.
“I forced myself to learn French so I could survive there.
“It was wonderful to come to Sheffield. I have travelled to other places in the UK but Sheffield is unique.
“I absolutely love it here. I want to die in Sheffield.”