SHEFFIELD is well known for being a welcoming place.
Thousands of students stay in the city long after graduation because they feel so at home.
And for five years it has officially been a City of Sanctuary, as part of a project that aims to give asylum seekers and refugees that very same welcome.
The move aims to ensure those people who are seeking sanctuary in Sheffield from danger in their home countries are treated with respect and understanding.
Project development officer Sarah Eldridge said: “I came to Sheffield in 1979 and the first thing I thought was it was a place where I felt at home.
“I was a stranger but everyone just talked to me as though I was their next-door neighbour.
“People who come here as asylum seekers, especially when they’ve been elsewhere in the country, say they are so glad to be in Sheffield because people are different here. We take people into schools to talk to young people about why they had to leave their families and the reaction we get from children is ‘what can I do? I’m going to go home and tell my parents, we’ve got a spare bedroom’.”
When Sheffield became the first official UK City of Sanctuary in 2007, it signed up to be a city that takes pride in the welcome it offers to people in need of safety.
The project has three full-time staff who help raise awareness of the asylum process by taking part in meetings and delivering talks to community groups or schools.
They also promote community events such as language cafes to keep busy people who may wait, surviving on just £5 a day, for years. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and many have fled their homes because of persecution, leaving their belongings, families and lives behind.
The Border Agency has around 400 privately-rented beds in Sheffield, through contractor G4S, that can house asylum seekers while they await a decision on their claim.
Sarah added: “Most people who come to the country for these reasons are desperate to work, firstly to pay back the UK, and also to keep busy because if you are carrying a trauma that has made you leave your country it is important to keep busy. A lot of them volunteer. The process should only take a few weeks or months but there are people who I’ve been helping for up to 10 years.”
Feedback to City of Sanctuary events has shown that they help change people’s attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees. Sheffield Homes was the 100th organisation to sign up to the movement.
Sheffield was also the launchpad for a national network with more than 30 UK towns and cities now signed up as sanctuary destinations. A conference to mark the five-year milestone also generated ideas about where its work should focus in the future. Sarah, who lives in Edale, says there is much more to do.
The 57-year-old said: “I would like us to be a position where every new person who arrives in Sheffield is given a personal welcome by somebody from the community.
“A lot of people arrive here as the first place in a totally unfamiliar country, maybe still traumatised from what they’ve been through.
They might not know the language, they won’t know about things such as places of worship, where to buy food they like or find friendship.
“I’d like for us to explain how the fire and police services operate. Some people come here from places where the police force in particular is not a friendly service. If we can be there as soon as they arrive we can make sure they are settled in a friendly way.”