News Release

Clothing Central London’s Refugees

Caring for neighbours in distress is central for anyone seeking to follow the Saviour’s pattern. In September this year, countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, provided a safe landing place for a large-scale evacuation of Afghanistan. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in London watched as the local government, faith, and non-profit organisations struggled to cope with accommodating their new neighbours’ immediate needs.

Hyde Park Stake (diocese) leaders entered the coordinated conversation to listen, understand, and identify ways Church members and resources could address local hardship. They learned that in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, more than 1,500 recently arrived refugees and asylum-seeking neighbours lacked proper clothing to endure the upcoming British winter.

Most of London’s refugees travel from warm climates and arrive with the clothing they wore as they left home. To alleviate the discomfort of wearing sandals in rainy, freezing weather, Stake President Chris Stephenson, working through Latter-day Saint Charities, immediately created a shoe voucher system enabling each refugee and asylum seeker in the Borough to purchase a pair of weather-appropriate footwear from local sports retailer Decathlon.

“Being able to pull socks and Wellington boots onto the bare feet of a four-year-old girl, the same age as my daughter, was very tender for me. It was hard not to draw a direct comparison to the care the Saviour took of children in the scriptures. I felt His love for them flow [during] our service every day at the Centre,” said volunteer Candace Queathem. “Even though I was tempted to think of clothing as less important, given the suffering refugees are living through, I was able to see shoes became a physical demonstration of Christ’s compassion.”

In a joint effort with support group Mutual Aid, members of the Hyde Park Stake converted the Hyde Park Chapel basement into the Borough’s only full-scale distribution facility. Throughout October and November, refugees from far and wide, from Eritrea to El Salvador, were greeted by personal shopping companions at the door of the Centre to assist with fitting and translation. While also monitoring the buzzing organisation and safety of the Centre, volunteers provided face-to-face moments of compassionate connection easing language differences and cultural divides.

Becky Brooks, a Mutual Aid volunteer, recalls a touching experience when volunteers met a young mother with two teenage sons who were receiving detention from their school for not wearing required uniforms, an impossible requirement with only £8 per week in funding and without the right to work. By opening their hearts and minds to this very front-facing type of service, Centre volunteers were able to advocate for the family persuading the school to provide uniforms for the young men.

While staffing the project round the clock with members, allying to manage donations, sorting, and refilling stock, and providing a dignified, paced ‘shopping’ experience for those seeking a seasonal wardrobe proved a heavy task, the Centre quickly expanded to invite cooperation from adjacent Boroughs. As word spread, Care for Calais, congregations from the Church of England and other community partners approached the Stake for help facilitating collection and distribution of luggage, coats, and other essential items throughout the city.

The Centre served nearly 1,400 people, and while everyone involved considers that a success, the real miracles occurred on an individual basis in the lives of the refugees and the volunteers who served them.  Perhaps the most striking example of how service blesses both the lives of the volunteer and the vulnerable, came when a young refugee couple from Turkey visited the Centre to find clothes for their toddler.  Although the small family-owned little, they first generously donated their daughter’s outgrown clothes and bouncer, knowing someone would come through the Centre who needed them more.

That touching act was one of countless many that Centre volunteers witnessed as they fulfilled the divine mandate to care for the poor and further Christ’s mission to heal the brokenhearted.

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