Q&A with Ellen Kiely and Julie Kashirahamwe

Ellen Kiely and Julie Kashirahamwe

Liverpool City Council

Q: What does your Welcoming work look like in Liverpool, and what do you want to achieve?

A: Our ultimate vision is to make Liverpool a welcoming and inclusive place for refugees, people seeking asylum and vulnerable migrants. We want them to be included in our communities, in wider society, and in council services. We have a strategy and a program of delivery called Our Liverpool Strategy, which we launched in June 2019. We were fortunate enough to be funded through government funding, which has just come to an end, but we’ve managed to continue with our own program.

The strategy has four aims that cut across seven thematic areas: move on; employment; education; language; health; needs of people seeking asylum; communities, culture and social connections; and NRPF. We want to make sure that communities are welcoming and safe, that refugees and people seeking asylum are aware of their rights and are able to exercise them, that services are coordinated and able to respond to the needs of refugees and people seeking asylum, and that policy and practice is informed by their needs.

Each thematic area has a sub-group. The groups are chaired by somebody from within the council and an external partner. Our strategy encompasses the work of all of our partners, because the strategy is not just for the council, it’s for the city as a whole. Each group has an action plan and a set of objectives, and is responsible for engaging relevant partners, and owning and implementing their plan with their available resources.

Q: What does your team look like?

A: Our core team is small – just two program staff, and three Community Development Officers. But we have key staff in different directorates of the council, such as Adult Learning and the Children’s Centers. We have developed online training that’s accessible to all staff within the council, and created specialist face to face training for some frontline staff.

Prior to our partnership with Inclusive Cities we already had a multiagency forum, and many of us have a long history of working in the voluntary sector, so we bring established relationships into the council. We’re trusted. When individuals or organisations are met with difficulties in accessing Council services, our team try to offer support and suggest ways that services can be made more inclusive. 

Q: Who are your partners?

A: With the Our Liverpool Strategy we’ve used the opportunity to reach out to partners that we were not in touch with before, and to develop those relationships. For example, the group focusing on arts and culture made a lot of new connections through their project, which they then shared with the Community Cohesion Form. We are hoping that as this strategy develops, and groups report back, we will be better equipped to apply for funding, because we will be able to say “Look, we know we’ve got this big gap here and here is the evidence.”

We have a community grants program that provides two hundred thousand pounds a year over three years. The applicants help us to deliver our strategy, because if you bid under the community theme, your aims and objectives need to fall within our Community Action Plan. It’s the same with the language theme, and needs of people seeking asylum themes. 

We also have an ESOL program delivered with childcare. We’ve got Family Link workers in children’s centers. We’ve got a Refugee Education Officer who helps deliver education provision for newly arrived people seeking asylum who are living in initial accommodation, before they can access school places. Some of these partnerships we’ve managed to continue with our own funding.

We have also tried to make sure that newcomers to the city have a say, and are heard by decision makers and local leaders. It’s important to add that we have allowed ourselves to test different approaches and activities. One of the things we did in the early stages was set up a Migrant Voice group, which had a certain level of scrutiny over the strategy, delegated some decision making, and also informed the work of the Our Liverpool team and wider subgroups. 

Q: How are you reaching out to your partners? 

A: In the beginning, a lot of work was put into connecting with people who were already working on similar issues within the city. The Our Liverpool brand has given us a stronger platform from which to reach out to residents and newcomers, whereas before I’d say that we were only known by professionals and community groups.

We have worked to develop migrants’ knowledge of their rights, and their responsibilities. For example, we collaborated with ESOL teachers, community groups, and churches to add messages about waste recycling into their lessons, and we also disseminated information about hate crime through ESOL English classes, because we recognized that a lot of people weren’t reporting such crimes. We’re providing information about public health through Our Liverpool Community videos, which were produced and presented by local community leaders or migrants themselves. 

Finally, we have supported integration between newcomers and longstanding residents.This has been made more difficult by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, we organised numerous fun days, worked within children’s centers, and invited people seeking asylum to football matches etc. This work was focused around creating opportunities for people to meet..

Having said that, Covid has bought opportunities too. One of the aims of the Inclusive Cities program is to engage with existing migrant communities. During the pandemic we were able to engage with more community leaders, who helped our public health teams to create messaging in different languages. We also managed to set up a Facebook group, which we wouldn’t have done before. 

Due to the EU Settlement Scheme we linked in with organisations supporting EU citizens. The Mayor of Liverpool sent letters to our EU residents about the scheme, and we also sent letters to people seeking asylum. 

Q: Liverpool is an important spot for arts and culture in the UK. Does it help to have such a vibrant artists community at your doorstep?

A: Definitely! Because we had arts and culture built into our strategy, we linked with Culture Liverpool, which is the part of the council responsible for cultural events. We had originally planned to put on events like Refugee Week or International Roma Day ourselves, but soon realised that we lacked the expertise, and that Culture Liverpool should take the lead. And I think this showcases that our strategy has been a bit of a living document that constantly evolves. I guess it’s been about deciding where we need to build really strong relationships, and where we can leverage what’s already there. 

One of our colleagues created a working group with various arts-based organizations that have an interest in either working with newcomers to commission them to produce art, or to give them opportunities to access arts institutions. Another example is one of the local theaters that was already offering free dress rehearsal tickets to people seeking asylum, and they wanted to know what more they could do. 

Q: Which projects did you partner with the Inclusive Cities initiative on, and how did it support your efforts? 

A: Inclusive Cities really mobilized and encouraged Liverpool to develop the Our Liverpool brand. As one of the first things we did, this brought people together, and brought the idea of working with new arrivals to the forefront. I don’t think we would have built such a strong brand if we weren’t part of the Inclusive Cities network. It gave us the initial idea, and it snowballed from there, because we were able to see how other cities like Bristol, Cardiff, and Glasgow have done it. For example, we went to see our colleagues in Glasgow and their People Make Glasgow campaign. It was so inspiring! Hearing about their branding and their inclusive narrative made us think “Oh, actually, we’ve got something here too.” In Liverpool, when somebody refers to one of their relatives or one of their close friends they would say, for example, “Our Jane.” It’s a colloquial term. It’s a belonging term, which we built our brand on.

We decided to develop a new approach to supporting migrants who have no recourse to public funds. We recognized that things can be very challenging for these residents, and so want to develop a new policy, support options and training for staff so they can provide better support. Because of the Inclusive Cities network, we can call other cities that are already doing such work and use their expertise. We are also hoping to hold a stakeholder engagement event and invite some of those cities to support us. Sometimes things seem impossible, and having all those alternative approaches available is really helpful. Someone saying “Well, this is how we would tackle it in Bristol…” gives you new ideas.

The other thing that is nice about the relationship with Inclusive Cities is that you can take a step back and look at the research. It’s hard to find time to read through best practices when you are rushing through projects, and trying to work out solutions on a day-to-day basis. The meetings in other cities, and the informative emails you receive, motivate you to take time to look at evidence-based research and reflect on your own work. 

Jacquie from Inclusive Cities reached out to the cities and asked us what we wanted them to research and deliver as briefing papers. They have developed a whole series, which have been really helpful. And, in fact, I’ve used the form to highlight the issues within our organisation. I’ve been able to say “Look, here’s some evidence. It has been looked at nationally, and we need to do something about it. It’s not just our team, but academics, and loads of other cities working with this.”

Q: What has changed on the ground in Liverpool because of this long term welcoming work? 

A: It has been a journey. We started to develop the strategy in 2017-18, and at the same time joined Inclusive Cities. And I think that’s had the greatest impact – having the strategy in place, having consistency in coordination through the strategy work, and having posts in the council that didn’t exist before. We are starting to get really good feedback from the voluntary sector that it is working, and making a difference. People who work with migrants, and support migrants, and advocate for migrants, feel that their opinions are getting fed forward and making change. There is more accountability, and their experiences are recorded.   

Q: What can long-term residents do to make newcomers feel at home?

A: People from Liverpool consider themselves to be welcoming, and they pride themselves on being neighborly, and community-based. But actually, people’s perceptions and people’s views are not always inclusive. Liverpool has struggled with racism for many years. What we need to do is build basic human relationships, say hello and engage with our neighbours, and be a bit patient. We should also think more about where we’re getting our information from, and how trustworthy our sources are. A lot of people receive really inaccurate information that catastrophizes everything around migration and makes migration seem like a crisis, when actually that is not the experience of Liverpool. It is important that we all ensure Liverpool is a welcoming city and there’s a place for everybody. If you’re homeless and you haven’t got status, there’s a place for you.

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