Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster visits Caritas summer camp that helps refugee children find a safe home

On 1st August, Bishop John Sherrington visited the Syria Summer Camp, an educational, fun and therapeutic event for children from refugee backgrounds hosted by Newman Catholic College and supported by Caritas Westminster. Now in its sixth year, it was initiated in 2016 by Amanda Wooster as a summer activity for refugees who came from places such as Syria and Afghanistan. Bishop John shares his experience of the visit …

I was warmly welcomed by Inayat and Anisa. Inayat, a young man and student at Newman Catholic College, whose name means ‘bounty, kindness, favour’, enthusiastically introduced me to other groups of young people at the Syrian Summer Camp. Anisa, an older woman, known as Auntie, whose name means ‘pleasant companion’ was a quiet and comforting presence with us throughout the day. Sister Silvana from Caritas Westminster, a passionate and dedicated promoter of the summer camp, had organised the visit and accompanied us.

We first met the young lionesses, younger children, being coached by a QPR woman trainer. Many had watched the Women’s Euro football final on Sunday evening and wanted to follow in the women’s footsteps. They were enthusiastic about football, if a little shy in our presence. The next group were waiting patiently to travel by train to London Zoo. The boys were keen to see the lions which were their favourite animal but were worried that the lions might be asleep and hidden in their lair.

Inayat introduced us to a group of boys who were discussing the meaning of culture. With origins in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries, they talked about whether they had grown up in a city or a rural area, the meaning of flags, sport and the culture they had left behind. They said that London was a safe place for them and that was more important than many other things. Learning English to communicate was at the heart of this activity. Football crossed all boundaries. Sr Silvana spoke about women footballers being paid less than men and asked whether this was right? Most accepted the difference!

A further group of teenage boys and girls were exploring the meaning of their names. Each told me their meaning which was beautiful and very moving. I learnt that Fatima, daughter of the Prophet, was translated as ‘flower’.  They were painting a symbol of their names to express the meaning. Many included light and sun, though some were much darker. I was asked about the meaning of the white collar in my shirt. I explained that it is a sign of being a bishop or priest.

‘What does a ring mean,’ I asked? They spoke of marriage and love. I said a bishop’s ring is a sign of the love of Christ and his Church. Sr Silvana explained the meaning of her ring of consecration as a woman religious. We then discussed some common elements of Christianity and Islam, pilgrimage, prayer times, almsgiving and charity, but didn’t get into detail about our views of the person of Jesus Christ. We also learnt that Ramadan is a much harder fast than Lent!

The final visit was to group of very young children exploring sound and movement with a patient teacher. They created a dance with rhythm and movement which they all thoroughly enjoyed although it was hard to work together. Fun was had by all.

Hospitality is central to Arabic culture and so we enjoyed the blessings of lunch together. Inayat presented me with his Afghani wristband and spoke of his hopes for A-Levels and the future. Anisa remained the motherly presence throughout the day.

Driving home from Harlesden made me think about the journeys they had made to be in a safe place in London. The helicopters whirring above Wembley on the day of the Women’s Euro final had clearly created anxiety for some of the young people and no doubt brought back terrible memories. Behind each face, a story and a family which is unknown to most of us. Yet each face revealed joy and friendship and appreciation of the work of the volunteers to help them over this period of the summer school.

Thank you to Newman Catholic College, Caritas, and all the volunteers trying to help these children and young people to find a safe home and some blessings.