A charity set up to help asylum seekers arriving in Leeds is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a special event on Friday to thank volunteers. Chris Burn reports.
Back in 1999, a small group of people concerned about asylum seekers struggling to start a new life in Yorkshire set up a new organisation – Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network. Two decades on, the organisation is helping around 600 refugees and asylum seekers living in Leeds every year and has a team of around 300 volunteers.
Gill Gibbons was one of the original founders of the group, which came about over concerns about how many of asylum seekers being moved to Leeds by the Government of the day were coping with life in their new city.
“Leeds was a pilot area for the Government’s regional dispersal policy of 1999 and a few of us started talking about our concerns for people who were turning up in our local communities and churches,” she recalls. “We were looking at what we could do to help and what information we needed to support them. We held our inaugural meeting in November 1999 to launch what became known as Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network.
“It’s really rewarding to see the people of Leeds continue to show such kindness.”
The charity has grown over the years and is now one of the oldest and largest charities helping to welcome people to the city.
More than 300 volunteers help support and integrate asylum seekers and refugees who have often fled violence and are trying to make a new life for themselves.
The organisation receives no government funding and is funded by charitable grants and donations.
Volunteers offer what are known as Befriending and Connecting Opportunities, where they give practical and emotional support to those seeking sanctuary; as well as Grace Hosting, where volunteers offer destitute asylum seekers a place to stay.
There is also an English at Home service where volunteer tutors give English lessons to people who can’t attend college because of issues such as child care or disability.
The current director of LASSN Jon Beech says the fact the organisation’s services are so popular is bittersweet.
“Leeds has a history of welcoming people fleeing persecution and it’s been an amazing 20 years for the charity which started off with just a handful of people but now has hundreds of volunteers involved,” he says.
“Befriending, assistance with emergency accommodation, and language tuition, make a huge difference to people reaching Leeds and with so much turmoil around the world, sadly our services are as necessary as ever.
“Twenty years on it seems a good opportunity to thank all our volunteers, not just those working with us today but everyone who has volunteered with us over the years.”
The charity is marking its 20th anniversary with a celebration on Friday, November 22, at Leeds Playhouse, which was one of the first Theatres of Sanctuary in the UK.
Robin Hawkes, Executive Director at Leeds Playhouse, says: “We work hard to engage with all sections of the different communities in Leeds and we’re proud of the work we’ve been doing to engage with people who are new to this country and this city, and who have perhaps never been to the theatre in their lives.
“We’re delighted to host the party to help celebrate 20 years of this charity’s amazing work.”
Around 100 people are expected to attend the event including prospective MPs, religious leaders, volunteers and those whose lives are being helped by LASSN.
For more information about LASSN, visit www.lassn.org.uk