28th January 2016, Belfast City Hall

The City Hall was ablaze with hope-filled conversation and newly educated minds last night as this year’s festival opened with our ‘From Syria…with Grace’ event.

The evening sprouted from a collaboration with Embrace NI – a Christian organisation established in 2001 to support refugees and people seeking asylum – and its hosts set out to inform, engage and encourage folk on how the Church can do a better job of welcoming refugees in Northern Ireland.

As we filled the room up to its brim, Embrace’s Denise Wright described the current situation for Syrian refugees – acknowledging the December 2015 arrival of 51 Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland – and painted a picture of the potential that exists within this nation to take action where refugees are concerned. Embrace has already been deeply involved in the welcoming and ‘nesting in’ of these new Syrian arrivals, as well as being overwhelmed by the support of the local community. Whilst it isn’t hard to see that people are ready and willing to help, the Church’s response has been a little cloudier.

Jasper Rutherford stepped up to share the vision of the 4 Corners Festival and captured each imagination with his proposition:

“What would it look like if we left our four corners of Belfast, our own postcodes, to share our faith across the city? No matter what postcode or what nation you’re coming from – with outstretched arms, we welcome you.”

Showing us a short film on his time with Tearfund, visiting refugees whose lives have been torn asunder at a camp in Lebanon, Jasper drew on the Biblical justifications for our involvement in the refugee crisis, petitioning us to be ‘fathers to the fatherless’.

“The Bible is full of stories of people on the move – people seeking a better future,” explained Rev Richard Kerr as he called for a Biblical response to the new people arriving to live alongside us: “Jesus has, Himself, been a refugee. The Christian Gospel is about restoration. It’s about refuge.”

Heads and hearts swirled as Denise returned with accounts from her visits to refugee camps in Jordan, and the fears she had for the children there if the world was to turn a blind eye. She explained that Palestinian refugee camps stood nearby those erected to shelter Syrian refugees, reminding us that these Palestinians had been without a permanent home since the 1960s – and that Syrian children could spend their entire lives in these camps if Europe doesn’t act.

She had plenty of encouraging words, too, and words of gratitude to locals who have donated thousands of pounds to Embrace in recent months.

“I think we, as Northern Ireland, have done a really good job…but we have many people living here already, seeking asylum, who aren’t receiving the same support,” she said. 

Norma is one such woman. Originally from Zimbabwe, Norma has been living in Northern Ireland for four years and came here as a destitute asylum seeker. She shared her own story of struggling to find support when she first arrived in the country. Destitution is a huge problem among asylum seekers who have nowhere to live and no support network. As Margaret McNulty explained, those who arrive in the UK to claim asylum receive jus £36 per week but this support is withdrawn once asylum is granted or refused: “These people can neither go backwards or forward.” 

Margaret, who works with Embrace, encouraged us to campaign for a fairer asylum system – including a permanent OFMDFM crisis fund for the destitute – before the Boaz Trust’s Dave Smith came along to ask us to go a few steps further.

The Boaz Trust was set up in Manchester in 2004 to offer temporary accommodation to those seeking asylum in the UK, prompted by a series of encounters with people living in desperate situations right on Dave’s doorstep.

“After hearing stories from asylum seekers and refugees, we began to realise that the way we were treating these people was not right,” Dave shared. After initially asking friends and fellow members of his congregation if they had a spare room to offer, Dave began to get a little more than he bargained for. A few individuals decided to buy houses for the purpose of sheltering asylum seekers – who ranged in origin from Zimbabwe to Eritrea and Iraq – and now, in 2016, the Boaz Trust has 14 houses that offer safety and warmth to vulnerable people across England.

Dave probably offered the biggest practical challenge of the evening – but he proved it was more than possible:

“I think that Northern Ireland is ready for something new. It has an incredible opportunity of doing something that can be an example to the rest of the UK. I know that Northern Ireland has a lot of churches – about three on every street – and some are empty, so you can put some people in there!”

From Syria…with Grace was definitely an enthralling beginning to this year’s 4 Corners Festival and Jasper set the bar with his call to action:

“The Church is looking for mechanisms to respond to the refugee crisis. It’s time to mobilise. For years, we’ve spend thousands of pounds sending people across the world to share the Gospel with others. They’re our neighbours now.”

Let’s brace ourselves!

Zara Porter (T: @zaraporter)

Take a look at the rest of the 4 Corners 2016 programme here.