SFAR began in 2015 as a Church of Scotland initiative in response to the upwelling of public sympathy and support for refugees, resulting (ironically as it seems now) from media reports of the refugee crises in Syria and Iraq. That initiative developed rapidly into an ecumenical, then an interfaith network, bringing together Christians of various denominations and representatives of the Jewish and Moslem faiths as well as Interfaith Scotland.
From the outset, SFAR has had no intention of replicating the work of other organisations, although it has developed links with the main players and co-ordinated action with them. Instead, its focus has been to harness and channel the talents of the faith communities in Scotland, along with their generosity and desire to help. It also brings together their voices in response to issues affecting refugees and migrants – to let it be seen clearly that the faith communities care.
In the 12 months since it got under way in November 2015, SFAR has developed a website (www.sfar.org.uk ) which provides resources, news, lists of events and information on what people can do to help refugees both in their area and nationally. It has held one-day conferences in Edinburgh and Aberdeen to give people an opportunity to hear from refugees and those working with them about the issues that concern them , and to talk and network with others.
And it has responded to developments on the political front and in the media. The sad thing is that while a positive and sympathetic media in some measure started off the SFAR project, by the time SFAR really started work, some sections of the media were using the arrival of a small number of Syrian refugees into the UK, and larger numbers into mainland Europe as an excuse for inflammatory headlines and negative articles.
One of the first actions of SFAR was to challenge a “cartoon” in a well-known national newspaper. SFAR’s formal complaint did not get the response it hoped for but it did, we believe, get the message out there that the faith communities of Scotland were not prepared to let this sort of behaviour pass unchallenged.
The Brexit campaign has raised the political and media stakes considerably, with much of the Leave Campaign focusing on immigration concerns and making claims that were based on questionable figures. It did not differentiate between EU migrants and refugees. It has been almost inevitable that there has been an increase in anti-migrant actions/reactions which will affect refugees as well. For this reason, SFAR is now in the process of producing an information leaflet on refugee issues for dissemination among faith communities to answer their questions and enable them to speak out.
On reflection, it was probably to be expected that the great tide of positive public response would begin to fall back. The Brexit campaign and the terrorist acts on the European mainland greatly contributed to its weakening. However, the SFAR network had time to get itself established and allow its members to become used to working together before the increase in hate language and actions started.
The focus now is not only on helping those who have sought refuge in our country but on presenting a united front to those who would try to build walls between us in any way. Perhaps what we have done so far have been the easy and obvious things – the website with its information and the networking – but they have been valuable for our communities to see.
Now the challenge is to decide how we build on this foundation, because I believe the faith communities working in unity cannot easily be brushed aside.