In January 2021 the UK entered its third national lockdown as Covid cases soared throughout the UK. In the US, there was political turmoil as one president refused to accept election defeat in unprecedented scenes.
The pandemic reached its height in the UK during January, with over 1000 deaths recorded daily from 9th January through to the 1st February, when thankfully, the number of deaths began to fall rapidly, to 212 by the end of February.
Despite the crisis and the lockdown, a small number of WDCoS volunteers continued to operate our Clothing Store, Food Store and Resource Centre from a temporary base in 88 Kirkgate, Wakefield Centre. In Wakefield there were an increased number of asylum seekers to support, with about 150 in the initial accommodation centre, Urban House, plus another 200 in local hotels. WDCoS also kept up its help and support to those refugees who have been settled in the district and to refused asylum seekers who are destitute.
One early positive outcome of the difficulties faced by us all was that the necessity to run English lessons on zoom rather than in drop in centres was transformed into a successful online service in January. The weekly programme of zoom sessions has become a real lifeline, especially to asylum seekers in temporary accommodation and the hotels.
Throughout the pandemic, our Creative Crafts team continued to run as often as possible and have supplied craft packs to the initial accommodation centre and local dispersed accommodation.
As the year progressed, it became clear we would need to leave 88 Kirkgate as other parties were interested in the premises. A plan developed to move to St. Michaels church at Westgate Common. We agreed to move after Easter.
In February, the Kindness shop inside the Ridings (part of the Real Junk Food project) ceased operating, increasing demand at all the other food banks in the area, including ourselves.
We also began to receive funds from Wakefield Council to help our food store at this time, however, this came with a caveat, that other agencies could refer people to us, effectively changing the nature of the charity, and increasing our outreach to all the needy in Wakefield. We didn’t immediately realise the impact this would cause – actually requiring us to change the “articles” of our charity.
In the middle of February, we posted an “I’ve been Vaccinated” page, to show our people were getting their vaccinations, and to encourage others to do so. It seems strange now, after 2 jabs and a booster to recall a time when vaccinations were new, and our great hope to end the pandemic. From June, we have offered monthly vaccination sessions on Saturdays, the most recent being on December 18.
In April 21, our Clothing Store, Food Store and Resource Centre moved to St. Michael’s church. We are always grateful for all the generous donations we receive, including food from supermarkets, the Wakefield Street Kitchen, St Vincent de Pauls and local people. The dire situation in Afghanistan produced a massive increase from individuals. But our new home is somewhat smaller than before, and we can no longer accommodate as many donations as we used to, especially clothing.
Refugee Week (14th-20th June) came and went, with a special exhibition in The Art House [TAH]. We also supported a “These Walls Must Fall” day of action in Sheffield – an organisation which campaigns for the end of Detention, and mandatory reporting.
At the end of June, we were able to supply 130 tablets to the initial accommodation centre, and to Cedar court hotel, as part of a Digital Inclusion project funded by Wakefield Council. We have had very positive comments from the welfare managers at both Urban House and Cedar Court Hotel. All recognise that they have positively contributed to the health and well-being of residents. All also constantly ask if we can supply some more. We are currently seeking written reports from welfare managers as well as anonymised reports from users.
In July of this year, we faced a crisis as the government attempted to deport many people of Zimbabwean origin, including our colleague Bryan, putting many in detention and preparing a deportation flight. Apparently, a deal had been done with the Zimbabwean government to arrange all this. We joined forces with many other organisations and agencies to try and prevent this happening. It was good to see so many agencies working together to achieve this, especially “These Walls Must Fall”, Change.org (we posted a petition here), and we managed to co-ordinate letters and calls to MP’s resulting in 75 MPs calling on Priti Patel to halt the flight. In the end, the flight went ahead after a delay with only 14 people being deported. Bryan was released from detention and was able to return to Wakefield. However, he is still required to report to the Home Office at regular intervals.
This battle was won, but we have only had temporary success – the deportation orders remain hanging over the heads of many of the Zimbabweans we have been trying to help – our government still wages war on refugees.
In August, the dreaded Nationality and Borders Bill was announced and began its readings in Parliament.
From August to December a group of volunteers ran weekly “Walk and Talk” sessions (A series of walks in Wakefield), setting off from our base in St Michael’s, which have temporarily paused due to Coronavirus outbreaks, but we hope to re-start them in the new year.
We also began using “Studio 3” in The Art House [TAH], from September, and are using it as an office base, for volunteer sessions and sublimation printing – a kind of printing where we are able to print on to objects such as pottery and material such as t-shirts.
In October, we became a partner and collection point for Solidaritech, a Bradford based organisation who recycle and refurbish tech equipment, which is then donated to refugees and asylum seekers.
As part of this “digital inclusion” drive, we applied to Vodafone who are offering free SIMs to charities, in their “Charities Connected” project. It’s great to announce that we have been accepted and will soon be the recipient of many SIMs which we hope to distribute in 2022.
In November, the heating system failed in our current home at St. Michaels church. When the repairers looked at it, they condemned the system as unsafe, and put warning signs on it. We have had to reduce what we are able to do, but many of our brave and resilient volunteers have soldiered on in the cold, wrapping up warm as best they can. Thankfully, we are enjoying an “unseasonably mild” period just before the new year, and thanks to generous donations, we hope to be able to have a new heating system in the new year.
As the year draws to a close, we have had to look at introducing food store usage rules due to unprecedented demand in recent weeks. Rules regarding referrals and frequency of visits are being introduced from early January. This is in line with many other food banks in the Wakefield District.
2021 ends with the sobering fact that, as we join and support campaigns against aspects of the current system, our government is going in the opposite direction, planning an even more hostile environment to come. One thing you may not have noticed – the Nationality and Borders bill was passed in the House of Commons in early December, with 297 votes in favour, and 230 against. The “aye” votes were mainly made up of conservatives (291), with the further 6 made up of 5 members of the DUP and one independent. All the other parties voted against the bill, which now goes to the House of Lords.
There was little to no mention of this in the press – I didn’t see it in the news, which seemed to be dominated by whether No.10 held a Christmas party in 2020 – or not. This bill makes it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK without permission, with a maximum sentence of up to four years.
And we thought the UK was already a very hostile environment.
But here, in Wakefield and District, there are more and more projects designed to offer a welcome to Asylum Seekers and Refugees, with the Library set to become a “Library of Sanctuary” in the near future, joining The Art House [TAH] (Studio of Sanctuary) and The Theatre Royal (Theatre of Sanctuary), and of course, the continuing work of WDCoS – all of us members of a movement which started in Sheffield in 2007. Collectively and as individuals, we are calling for more humanity from the authorities and for our society to give a welcome to the stranger.
if you wish to join us in this effort, please see the opportunities for giving…, contact us about volunteering, and consider taking action with one of the many organisations which campaign for change.
You can donate to Wakefield District City of Sanctuary here.