Nervous future for Halifax asylum seeker support centre as it marks its 50th anniversary

Date: 29th August 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'St Augustine's Centre, Hanson Lane, Halifax, held a garden party to celebrate the 50th years of the centre,  which is the primary support service for asylum seekers and refugees in Calderdale. Pictured Minushe Saliaj, 29, from Albania, with Centre Leader (CEO) Vicky Ledwidge, and Mbuuaraa Kambazembi, 25, from Namibia.
Date: 29th August 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'St Augustine's Centre, Hanson Lane, Halifax, held a garden party to celebrate the 50th years of the centre, which is the primary support service for asylum seekers and refugees in Calderdale. Pictured Minushe Saliaj, 29, from Albania, with Centre Leader (CEO) Vicky Ledwidge, and Mbuuaraa Kambazembi, 25, from Namibia.

It’s been at the centre of the community for 50 years and in the last two decades has been the first port of call for those arriving in Yorkshire from foreign lands, seeking refuge.

The St Augustine’s Centre in Halifax, which is the primary support service for asylum seekers and refugees in Calderdale, celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday with a garden party.

Date: 29th August 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'St Augustine's Centre, Hanson Lane, Halifax, held a garden party to celebrate the 50th years of the centre,  which is the primary support service for asylum seekers and refugees in Calderdale. Pictured Centre Leader (CEO) Vicky Ledwidge, with the founder in 1968 of the St Augustine's Centre Denise Keenan.

Date: 29th August 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'St Augustine's Centre, Hanson Lane, Halifax, held a garden party to celebrate the 50th years of the centre, which is the primary support service for asylum seekers and refugees in Calderdale. Pictured Centre Leader (CEO) Vicky Ledwidge, with the founder in 1968 of the St Augustine's Centre Denise Keenan.

Volunteers and those using the service marked the milestone with food and music from around the world, with those in attendance hailing from as far afield as Albania and Namibia.

But with potential obstacles to overcome in the coming months, not least the way the asylum seeker housing system in Yorkshire is run, the centre’s leader Vicky Ledwidge admits she is nervous about what the future might hold.

Based in the Park ward of Halifax, parts of which include some of the most deprived postcodes in the country, its work started in 1968 when St Augustine’s Church started a parent and toddler group. Volunteers soon extended their work to community lunches and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.

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In the early 2000s Calderdale became a dispersal area for asylum seekers, in a scheme that was at the time run by local authorities before being handed over to outsourcing giants like G4S.

And with accommodation in the local area relatively cheap, the vast majority of those arriving in the borough seeking refuge have ended up living nearby.

In the first quarter of 2018, Calderdale had 363 asylum seekers in dispersed accommodation. Numbers have been rising steadily since 2010, when there were only 106, though the total was as high as 304 in 2003.

Many of the cosmopolitan mix of visitors to the centre come together over food, with some 6,000 meals handed out in the first half of this year and 700 ESOL classes carried out as part of efforts to improve asylum seekers’ employment prospects.

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Among those at yesterday’s garden party was Hamed Haghi, 28, from Tehran in Iran, a refugee who has been coming to St Augustine’s for two years.

A keen player of the sport ‘futsal’, he wants to be a futsal manager and is going to college to study English in September. “I cook in the kitchen, and I take English classes,” he said. “I got my refugee papers three weeks ago. Then I came here and they helped me find a house and open a bank account. I’m happy here.”

Mbuuaraa Kambazembi, 24, from Namibia, has been in the UK for six years and is one year into a Sanctuary Scholarship at Bradford University, studying psychology with counselling.

She started volunteering at St Augustine’s four years ago, and the centre has helped achieve her ambition of a university place.

“I applied to Huddersfield, Bradford and Leeds universities but was told I wasn’t eligible because I was an asylum seeker,” she said.

“I remember being so heartbroken. I thought I would never be able to do it.

“But Vicky from St Augustine’s told me about a Sanctuary Scholarship for asylum seekers.

“You have to have some kind of status, you can’t just be a refused asylum seeker.

“Honest to God, I couldn’t believe it. If it wasn’t for her I would never have known about it.

“I didn’t have a computer when I started university so Vicky helped me get a laptop, and I’ve been able to get financial assistance for travel costs.

“I’m not going to waste this opportunity. I’m going to get my degree and make the most of it.

“I want to become a forensic psychologist.”

Minushe Saliaj, 29, from Albania, has been coming to St Augustine’s for two-and-a-half years and is still in the asylum process.

“When I came I didn’t have anyone,” she told The Yorkshire Post. “But here I found friends, and they’ve supported me a lot, like a family.

“I used to live in London, but here I have found completely different people, so warm and nice.

“I’m thankful for everything they do. I would like to stay in this country and find work.”

As well as concerns over how the centre will continue to be funded in the coming months, Ms Ledwidge and her team will have to deal with changes to immigration laws and the potential impact of Brexit.

And as The Yorkshire Post revealed this month, there are major concerns over the future of the £600m contract to run asylum seeker dispersal in the region after it emerged that there were no successful bids to run it when it comes up for renewal.

A letter signed by 14 council leaders to Home Secretary Sajid Javid says there is a risk of “catastrophic failure” for the Compass project which provides accommodation for those seeking refugee status.

Ms Ledwidge said her organisation would need to react to any changes made to the scheme, even potentially helping people who have to leave their accommodation.

She said: “We are going to have a role to play in that, we are nervous about what the future might hold. We know we will rise to the challenge in a really good, strong way, but that uncertainty puts us on edge because we don’t know what is going to happen.”

Tim Swift, the leader of Calderdale council, was among the leaders who called on the Government to act over the current asylum seeker dispersal system.

She said: “We’re proud of the warmth and kindness our communities in Calderdale have shown towards asylum seekers who have settled here, and this was particularly evident during the Syrian crisis in 2015.

“However we have great concerns about the current situation. Under the G4S contract for housing asylum seekers in Yorkshire, local authorities were kept at arm’s length, and very distant from any local influence. This meant that at times we had real concerns about both the condition and the location of housing that was used to accommodate asylum seekers in Calderdale.

“Local authorities have a deep understanding of their local communities and their sensitivities. And so it’s vital that we are closely involved so that we can make sure that the process is managed well, without adding to local pressures, where these are becoming apparent.

“That’s why we’re joining the other Leaders in Yorkshire in calling on the government to recognise the role of Councils within the new contract so that the system becomes much more collaborative.”