5D Text

Leicester is one of Britain’s ‘Cities of Sanctuary’. City of Sanctuary UK is a secular charity which ‘holds the vision that our nations will be welcoming places of safety for all and proud to offer sanctuary to people fleeing violence and persecution’ (centre).

Terms such as refugee, asylum seeker, economic migrant and illegal immigrant all have very different and some overlapping meanings, yet all are often used or thought of interchangeably. People such as my grandparents, the Hess family and Dr Mohannad (next panel) left home in fear of their lives. In my grandparents’ and the Hess family’s case they were the wrong religious and ethnic group.

Whilst we all know that there is trouble in the world, many of us still do not believe or understand that people do not readily leave their homelands. People flee because they have been oppressed and persecuted. Persecution can be religious, national, social, racial, political or because of gender orientation. People flee because of war, poverty, hunger and more recently climate change. They may have been threatened, imprisoned or tortured. Their ensuing journeys are often hazardous and uncertain (top centre and centre).

Many refugees from the Nazis ended up in Leicester, with its history of caring Christianity and strong Quaker tradition, such as the Kindertransport children taken in by the Attenborough family. Hans Hess arrived for perhaps less charitable reasons. Like most Leicester Jews, he may have attended the old Highfields synagogue (top left). Ben Abeles, who had a place on the Kindertransport thanks to British humanitarian Nicholas Winton, became a renowned physicist. Because of his experience as a child refugee and as a member of the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation he is now supporting a City Council undertaking to accept and support at least five child refugees each year for the next 10 years.

In August 1972 Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, ordered the expulsion of the entire South Asian minority population of 80,000, giving them only 90 days to leave. These Ugandans were entrepreneurial, hard-working and a massive asset to the Ugandan economy. Leicester City Council then placed adverts (bottom centre) in the Ugandan press trying to dissuade Ugandan Asians, most of whom held British passports, from migrating to the city! The effect was opposite. Of the 27,000 Ugandan Asians that came to Britain, about 10,000 went directly to Leicester, thinking ‘it must be a gold mine, that’s why they don’t want us there’. The success in all fields and at all levels of Leicester’s Ugandan Asian community is well documented and is a prime example of refugees presenting an opportunity and not a threat. In 2012 Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s mayor, expressed his regret over the council’s action.

With over 240 faith groups across 14 different faiths in the city, and hundreds of places of worship, it is unsurprising that many of the organisations helping and supporting new arrivals in Leicester are faith based. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple (top right) was built with help from the Ugandan Asian community. Leicester now has the third-largest population of Hindus in the country. Many immigrants and refugees who came to Leicester, such as Dr Mohannad, are Muslim. Local Muslims were using the houses on Sutherland Street (bottom right) as a mosque as early as 1965. There are currently over 35 mosques in Leicester, as well as a wide range of Muslim organisations that work on interfaith and community issues. Leicester Cathedral (bottom left) is at the centre of Leicester’s Old Town and houses the tomb of King Richard III. It is involved with many refugee outreach projects.

Leicester has always been welcoming to refugees. To be different here is the norm. There are hundreds of different groups under the City of Sanctuary umbrella offering assistance and support in different ways across the city and county. They address basic needs like housing, clothing, food, money, healthcare, education and legal advice as well as providing hospitality and friendship, recreation and entertainment. Leicester-based Counterpoint Arts have set up Refugee Week, an annual programme of art, education and cultural events to celebrate the contributions of refugees. ‘City of Sanctuary groups share a vision to promote, network and resource activities in all spheres of society that focus on welcoming and including refugees who have come to these islands to seek safety’.