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Rose McCarthy is inspired by a shocking idea.

Earlier this year I went to the Region of Sanctuary conference in Bradford. It was inspirational, infact, the best conference I have ever attended. The chair women used to work with Nelson Mandala and the main speaker Indergit Bhogal gave off such an aura of peace that I got goose bumps. The City of Sanctuary movement is about local people, organisations and groups signing up to say that they would like to live in a city that was proud to offer a place of safety and welcome to people whose lives were in danger in their own countries. How fantastically shocking would that be! Wouldn’t it be great? A city where people benefitted from a flow of new ideas, talents and relationships, people weren’t segregated or isolated, barriers were broken down and people lived in peace. An ideal yes but one worth aiming for. The tradition of providing sanctuary isn’t new. It has its roots in the oldest human cultures. It is recognised by every faith, is in international law and it has saved countless lives. It is a deeply British tradition and one to be proud of.

There are 15 towns and cities signed up to the City of Sanctuary movement and two, Sheffield and Swansea are now official Cities of Sanctuary. Yorkshire and the Humber is the first Region of Sanctuary movement and I am proud to say that as a region, we are leading the way for others to follow. At the conference a group of people, myself included, got together and decided Leeds should be involved. We set up an open meeting where people from different faiths and organisations attended and from that a steering group and we have met nothing but enthusiasm along the way.

How could you get involved? By signing the promise sheet saying your support the idea and then adding what you could do to welcome people seeking sanctuary in Leeds. You could do this as an individual or as group or organisation. You can promise whatever you like but the idea is when possible to try and include people seeking sanctuary in your activities, such as work placements, voluntary work, free membership of clubs, lifts to and from events or a conversation group. In Huddersfield I know of a parents and toddler group who have promised to welcome asylum seekers and refugees to their group and to befriend them when they arrive. Also a bridge club in Sheffield gave free lessons in bridge to people seeking sanctuary who after learning the game were able to join the bridge club and make friends. The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) in Leeds has set up a bumps, babies and beyond group in Harehills which is run by two local women and mainly parents seeking sanctuary attend. The local branch and many individuals also donate baby goods and equipment to the antenatal group I run in Harehills.

Someone asked me why should people sign up? What is in it for me? Interesting questions and I thought, if you don’t you will be missing out! You will be like I used to be living in a bubble, unaware of the wonderful people from all around the world living in our city. Your life will be less full. My life has changed. My friends seeking sanctuary make me laugh, cry, angry when they are treated unfairly and determined to do something on their behalf, for example a friend said “Rose, if you are an African mama, you have to go hungry to feed your children”. I say, “no, that is not right. Not in this country at least.” but time and time again, she has proved me wrong. We have gone to Asda to spend her £35 allowance and there has been no money on her card. She has been let down again. It may not be right but it is true.

At the Region of Sanctuary Conference I asked a question and said I worked for the NCT. I was amazed afterwards at the number of people who approach me saying how pleased they were to hear that the NCT was prepared to get involved with people seeking sanctuary. They thought the NCT was just for white middle classed parents but I did say that our aim is to support ALL parents. It was quite a humbling experience but it was good to see that the NCT was held in high regard and was welcomed with open arms. I am delighted to say that I have been in touch with NCT HQ about this movement and have received great support. The senior management team are just looking at the detail of how this will work in practice

In order to become a City of Sanctuary we need to get support from a wide range of local groups as well as people seeking sanctuary themselves and refugee organisations that support them. This is a grass root non political organisation and to succeed it needs your help. If you want to know more please go to the City of Sanctuary website where you can see an inspiring short film. Please, please do pass on this information and the promise form to anyone you know. We want businesses, public sector, volunteer sector and individuals to be involved.

I do hope that you don’t miss out. That you join this fantastically shocking City of Sanctuary movement and that by creating a culture of hospitality and welcome, our city will become a beacon of hope through difficult times and a better place for everyone to live in.

Rose McCarthy, NCT antenatal teacher and assessor