On June 20th Fresh Start held a well-attended symposium at the House of Commons, sponsored by our local MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Neil Coyle, with a number of other MPs or their PAs in attendance. Representatives from Refugee organisations, such as Refugee Action and the Refugee Council were also present as well as Fresh Start participants. Peter Brierly of Citizens UK introduced the event and highlighted the community benefits of the programme.
Neil Coyle MP then set the wider context and highlighted the positive advantages of migration, asking why sometimes it is seen as negative when in fact all evidence points towards the positive. In other words, he said, ‘immigration brings benefits’ to the whole community as Fresh Start participants clearly demonstrate.
Nicoletta Bonansea, Fresh Start project manager, gave an overview of the Fresh Start programme followed by lead tutor, Mo Obadina who talked about the challenges and opportunities. All agreed that there is a need for more courses of this nature. Paulina Tamborrel Signoret of Citizens UK spoke of the benefits for the local communities and of individual participants in bringing new ideas and innovations to share more widely and with the potential to create more jobs for the future. This was followed by some inspirational stories from Hafisa Risour and Melissa Sue Rossi Cardenas about their Fresh Start journeys.
Ros Wade then presented a short policy briefing with some of the key findings drawn from participants, tutors and partners, and invited comments from the attendees. Key points included:
Lobby for more support for migrant parents – especially free childcare
Support changes to the benefit system so that migrants can get an allowance for benefit while on courses as they currently risk losing benefits if they start a business
Develop a strategy for ESOL in London and support a UK wide strategy
Support the need for a separate course for migrants – mainstream courses do not work
An enthusiastic discussion followed and key elements will be taken forward into the final draft of the Policy Paper which will be presented to MPs, local councillors, EU funders, as well as stakeholders and partners.
MP Neil Coyle, Bermondsey & Old Southwark and Kevin Bonavia, Lewisham Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees and Accountability then responded very warmly to the proposals and endorsed the key elements. Their support will be invaluable in taking this issues forward as will the role of Citizens UK who have provided their considerable expertise in community organising and change making through relationship building.
Fresh Start participants felt that this was a very positive finish to their studies and many selfies were taken in and around the House of Commons where great excitement was in the air that day because it was also the election for leadership of the Conservative party! National media were in evidence in the lobby but they missed their opportunity for a positive story on Fresh Start ! Happily, there are many of us who will spread the news and take this forward anyway.