WORDS Jeremy Woodham / PHOTOS Jonathan Self
In a chilly church hall in Glasgow tonight up to 30 men who don’t exist will be getting ready to sleep.
They tell me the heaters will be on at Anderston Kelvingrove Church of Scotland by the time it fills up with mattresses, duvets and destitute asylum seekers.
These are the people who can neither stay nor leave. Their claim for asylum refused, they have no right to benefits or accommodation, and are ‘forgotten’ by the system.
This happened to 27-year-old Aziz from an Afghan refugee family living in Iran. He wasn’t a Christian when he left Iran but he was a young man with an urge to discover “the true way” as he puts it. He put himself in the hands of a “guide” and travelled by bus, car and on foot, to Turkey, on to France and then to the UK and finally Glasgow. Here came the turning point in his story when he met a group of Christians who treated each other well.
Soon he was attending City of Peace, a service especially created for refugees and asylum seekers. He was able to sing in a familiar language, hear the gospel and ask questions about it with a fluent Farsi speaking Christian. It took three years for Aziz to be ready to be baptised. Every year his good friend would ask him and he would reply that he wasn’t ready. Then one night he had a dream of a tall man in a white robe pouring water on someone’s head and then flicking some towards him with his right hand. When he woke he knew it was time to be baptised.
“I can feel Jesus in me, his energy and beauty and peace,” says Aziz as we sit in his spotless council flat. The decor may be sparse but the hospitality is not. Cakes, grapes, bananas, nuts, ice cream and delicate Iranian tea are all served before we leave, despite having timed our visit for after lunch so that Aziz would not feel obliged to feed us. “My hairs stand on end when we come together like this and talk about Jesus,” he says.
Aziz arrived in Glasgow in July 2010. His initial claim for asylum was refused, after which he had to survive in the grey economy, with no official right to work. For the first year after his claim was denied he was allowed to stay in Home Office accommodation but then one day an eviction letter arrived and the locks were changed.
He eventually succeeded with a fresh claim for asylum in 2014, due to the fact that he had become a believer in Jesus and it would be dangerous to live in Afghanistan or Iran. All that time, a small group of faithful Christians, Andrew Parfitt of Church Mission Society among them, walked alongside Aziz.
God is drawing people to himself
“That’s the way I view mission,” says Andrew, who has been living and working in Glasgow for six years. “I know God is drawing people to himself and I want to be alongside him in that."
“I think both my wife Faye and I want to use skills that God has given us to love people, to help, and also to use our experiences to come alongside people. Faye being from Iran, me having spent time in Afghanistan – with a little bit of language, a little bit of cultural understanding – we want to use that and offer our gifts to the church.
“Our calling, our passion, our vision has been to come alongside Muslim people to love them, especially those coming from the Persian speaking world.”
It is those people who join Andrew for a weekly Bible study on a Wednesday night at Govanhill Free Church.
“Last week we looked at the parable of the landowner, where he gives the same wages to everybody (Matthew 20) and we were talking about equality of all believers with God, and the way that our God loves everybody. For me it was quite a big thing that they acknowledged that they had seen this in the church, in the people that they had encountered.” This is significant; you are certainly not going to feel equal if you are going through the asylum system in the UK. On our second evening in Glasgow we drop in to the night shelter for destitute asylum seekers and get a warm welcome from the volunteers of Unity, a local refugee charity who now run the shelter. It’s part of the legacy of Andrew’s team.
Our podcast special with Andrew and Faye in Glasgow, as the Audiomission World Tour reaches north-west Europe!
An emergency situation
He explains: “We knew there was an issue with destitute asylum seekers so about three years ago we got in contact with Glasgow City Mission and started a pilot scheme. We had a group of six or seven guys who spent the night with us over the winter and, out of that, this slightly larger, more permanent project has started in Anderston Kelvingrove Church.”
The charity Unity came on board as Andrew’s small team did not have the capacity to carry it on and now, with a full time manager employed, and a host of volunteers largely drawn from the city’s student population, the shelter runs all year round.
The issue of destitute asylum seekers is still close to Andrew’s heart: “When somebody comes to the UK to claim asylum, that is their legal right under international law. If the government thinks that somebody does not have a case, then they lose all status within the country. They are told that they should go back to their country and they lose any accommodation, any monetary support and they also have no right to work. They are left destitute.
“The problem is that people don’t go back: some people can’t go back; some people the government can’t send back because their countries won’t take them; some people just refuse to go back.
“Often people have appealed against that initial decision or put in new claims or have new evidence but they are waiting for documents to arrive. It’s very, very common for people at some point to be destitute during the asylum process. If you come and your case is recognised immediately, you are one of the lucky ones.”
A quarter of initial refusals are overturned on appeal, but in the waiting period, many asylum seekers effectively disappear. In 2015, the Red Cross said the number of destitute asylum seekers in the UK reached 9,000.
“A lot of churches and charities in Glasgow are responding to that as the emergency situation that it is,” says Andrew. “The difficulty is that these people are very much forgotten by the system and, less so now but certainly a few years ago, people were reluctant to work with these people. It’s a real grey area. They are not here in the country illegally because they are exercising the right to be recognised as refugees but people are sometimes reticent to help, because they don’t know where they stand legally.”
In any given week, the majority of people Andrew will meet are somewhere in the asylum and refugee system, typically from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kurdistan (whether that’s Syria or Iraq). And they are usually people who have come to faith or are very interested in Christ and are on the journey to faith.
“Although everyone’s stories are different, they are on the journey of being a refugee here with all the problems and worries that that entails: starting a new life, looking for housing, looking for jobs. I learn a lot from them actually, because they pray a lot and they have to trust in God a lot. I actually think I end up learning more and being challenged more in my discipleship every time I meet with them.”
Andrew hears these stories not just through his direct mission work, but from the students to whom he teaches English as a way of helping to support himself and the family.
One former student is young mum Wahazit Tesfankiel, 21, from Eritrea. Wahazit and her sister Siham, 17, came to Glasgow in 2013 to be reunited with their mother who has been living here for 15 years.
Believe to remain?
Wahazit and Siham are Pentecostal Christians. Although they came to Glasgow on family reunion visas, Eritrean Pentecostals usually receive a straightforward ‘yes’ from the Home Office to their asylum claims, because it is clear that they have no freedom of religion in Eritrea. In fact Wahazit knows at least 10 people in prison for their beliefs.
The Eritrean Pentecostal church is underground. “They meet in people’s houses,” says Siham. “If the neighbour hears them praying or singing they will call the police. Believers are still being sent to prison – it’s normal.”
It’s because of these threats that Eritrean Pentecostal churches in Glasgow are full on Sundays; some who attend are Eritreans from other faith backgrounds who are looking to bolster their asylum claims.
“Many of them come for the process,” explains Siham, “but it takes a long time. Maybe they get refused but they are still coming to church and then maybe after two years they become really believers – they give up to Jesus.”
It’s an obvious critique to make: don’t people become Christians just to get asylum? “Of course they do,” says Andrew, “we’re not naive. It happens. There are lots of Iranian churches in Glasgow and I think they would say the same thing: lots of people come to help their case. But they come for a year or two, hearing the gospel regularly, and eventually they come to believe.”
Making a new life
Iran is another subject close to Andrew’s heart – very, as his wife Faye is Iranian. She arrived in Britain to study in 2009 and soon met Andrew. She had become a Christian while living in India and had been nurtured by some American Baptist missionaries. And she wanted their job!
“I thought, they are amazing, I wish I could be like them! That was one of my dreams: I said to God this is what I want to do. And then it was amazing to meet Andrew and become a mission partner with CMS. I thought, oh my goodness, I haven’t even tried to get here; it just happened.”
When she and Andrew got married, Faye started working at The Well, a multicultural advice centre in the tenements of Govanhill, Glasgow’s most multicultural area – unfairly slurred as ‘Govan-hell’ by some.
CMS has had a long association with The Well, which deals with people once asylum has been granted (and with anyone in need of help). Things don’t get easier, it seems, as we listen to Rhoda, The Well’s manager, reel off the types of advice they give, from benefits to job searches to setting up electricity accounts to simply using a computer, which many, especially the older generation, have never done.
Faye is smiling as she recalls her time at The Well: “Because I didn’t look Scottish, I felt like I could connect with people better, so they were telling me about their life stories. Also they were asking me ‘Are you Muslim?’ – many people started the conversation this way. I usually started with ‘I believe in Jesus’ rather than ‘No, I’m not Muslim.’
“Sometimes you can see from their face that they are in trouble or they just want to talk to someone. People were really open with me – even if it wasn’t speaking about faith – just having a good conversation or offloading on me. It was draining for me to always listen but at the end of the day you feel good that at least you made somebody smile.”
Where is hope?
Before we head to Glasgow Central for the sleeper to London, I have to ask Andrew something. In what he frequently describes as a “very messy” situation, walking alongside people in all the ups and many downs of seeking asylum and hopefully building a new life here, what gives him hope?
“I was asking myself that last night, as I was speaking to a guy, trying to offer some hope. I don’t necessarily have the ability to offer legal hope – that’s why I think it’s great that you can walk alongside somebody in relationship and you can offer prayer, you can offer friendship, you can offer practical support.
“We can offer the hope that God hasn’t forgotten about them, we can offer friendship and hopefully we can offer Christ as well. “I see people coming to Christ: migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, especially from Muslim backgrounds, in a way which is extraordinary if you look at it historically. I was in a church recently and somebody from a Muslim background just walked into the church seeking God. Many people will have prayed for this to happen, even for decades – and actually we are seeing it now. It confirms that God is doing it really: we’re alongside him, we are welcoming people, we have a job to do but it’s God’s timing I think in all of this.”
The Call in Action: PRAY
- Pray for Andrew and Faye as they walk alongside asylum seekers
- Give thanks for how God is at work in people’s hearts
- Pray for more Christians to show love and support to ‘people who don’t exist’