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Oxford hosts Sanctuary Fair for the first time

The Oxford Sanctuary Fair was hosted for the first time on Thursday 11th May in the Oxford Town Hall. 

It was organised by a collective team from the University of Oxford and its Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford-based Charity Asylum Welcome and Oxford City Council. The fair aimed to develop the City Council’s bid to become an accredited Local Authority of Sanctuary. In 2019 the council started this process by signing the City of Sanctuary Charter.

Nearly 20 organisations took part in the fair, ranging from the University’s own Career Service, to the Iraqi Women Art and War group, Sanctuary Wheels, the Diocese of Oxford, and the free tutor provider Jacari.

Panel sessions were also provided with speakers from the city’s student and local community alike, discussing  topics around ‘making sanctuary a reality’, the politics of refugees, community, education, homes, faith and campaigning. 

Also provided were workshops aiming to develop the skill set of the members of the organisations present and the wider Oxford community. These touched on contemporary advocacy, career pathways within the refugee support sector, democracy when building a sanctuary city and how the arts can amplify the voices of those displaced.

Hannah Ling, Social Justice Adviser to the Diocese of Oxford said “It’s really great to be here at the sanctuary fair sharing about how people can get involved with local volunteering with churches from supporting English language classes for refugees and asylum seekers, or helping support people in asylum hotels.

“It’s been really great to connect with local people and give them information about what we’re doing, but also to be surrounded by a whole bunch of people doing amazing work in this area and feeling like together we can really make a difference”.

The fair gave students the opportunity to get involved further in refugee affairs. The Keep Campsfield Closed Campaign had strong student engagement, with one member of the campaign saying student support is vital to its success as the University has real, significant power in the town and concerning the future of the Detention centre only 5km away. While Layla Moran, a former refugee and Liberal Democrat MP has been vocal on the issue, Oxford East Labour MP Annelies Dodds has been “less enthusiastic”, as one campaign member noted. 

There was also ample opportunity for JCRs and MCRs to get involved, from ‘Sanctuary Wheels’ requesting more bike donations to enable transport provisions for new arrivals, the careers service’s human rights workshop projects, and many volunteering opportunities for language teaching, tutoring and hosting.

Juliet Van Gyseghem, President of the Student Action for Refugees (STAR) organisation, told Cherwell that “The timing [of the fair] could not be more ideal [as] it was held only a day after the Oxford got University of Sanctuary status”. She made clear that “For us in STAR, a newly re-started student group, we were able to connect with individuals and organisations who are actively working to make Oxford a more welcoming and inclusive space”. 

In the future STAR hopes “to be a driving force amongst students to encourage engagement with the local community”. Van Gysemhem believes that “As students we have an obligation to combat harmful rhetoric and policy. In STAR Oxford, we aim to do this through a combination of advocacy, campaigning, and volunteering. We welcome anyone to get involved. You can follow us on instagram @oxforduni.star” 

The international spirit of the Sanctuary fair was a particular source of satisfaction for those organising the event, with speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds. Participants ranged from a Canadian-Somali city councilman speaking about his experience making his city more welcoming to refugees, a Chinese masters student who volunteers locally with refugees, and an Albanian speaker who impressed the reality of life as a young girl being potentially trafficked – specifically “to trydown this assumption that Albanians are here as economic migrants”. Speakers from Ukraine, Eritrea and Sundan were also present. 

Director of Asylum Welcome Mark Goldring believes the event has been a success. “Asylum Welcome helped organise the event because we wanted to help both the University and the city on their journey to be official places of sanctuary. That required them to develop plans to try and become much more inclusive organisations, and today has got that started well. 

“We’ve looked at the politics, we’re looking at some of the practicalities, we have refugees speaking for themselves, discussions on next steps, so it is only the beginning of something, but it is a positive step. And having the University be able to announce this morning that they’ve got that official status is a great step forward”, he continued.

When asking what events were on offer at the fair, Goldring responded, saying that “Today has been a combination of presentations to the whole group, but just as importantly there’s about 20 stalls, so students and citizens can all learn about what they can contribute and what they can do. So, it’s a combination of understanding more and practical actions.”

Regarding whether or not the Sanctuary Fair is set to become an annual event, Goldring stated that while the 2023 Fair would likely not repeat on a regular basis, “that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be student events and there shouldn’t be planning activities. Our aim is to do more to get refugee voices into the planning process, and that’s not necessarily achieved by big events because everyone speaks different languages [and come from] different backgrounds”.Instead, according to Goldring “its far better to say ‘what do we do to improve transport for refugees, what can we do to help them thrive in the school system,[and] how do they get better access to University’. It’s more thematic than the big set-piece.”

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