The International Community Organisation of Sunderland (ICOS), New Horizon and the Sunderland Bangladesh International Centre – who will host the Shared Sunderland project – have joined forces to offer a drop-in centre and workshops to help people access housing, benefits, language and employment support.
Volunteers will also help with the completion of residency forms
For chair of New Horizon, Rachidy Bikaya, he hopes the project will help people avoid the experiences he encountered when he moved to Sunderland from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an asylum seeker in 2002.
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He said: “You don’t have any say in where you’re transported to. I was dropped in with no support in terms of language, culture or help with practical things. It was chaotic and a real challenge.
"Things have improved massively, but when I first arrived I wasn’t made very welcome and I remember in 2003 being held at gunpoint.
"Learning the language is such a crucial thing and this project is about ensuring people arriving in the country don’t have the same experience I did.”
While the official launch took place on Wednesday (May 25) the project has already provided support to people. One of those to benefit is Kurdish asylum seeker Mohammad Sarbust, 43, who fled Iraq in 2020, and is still seeking permanent residency.
He said: “The language barrier was a real issue and I didn’t know where I could get help. Being part of Shared Sunderland has really helped me get support to improve my English as well getting access to housing.
"I’m now volunteering to help other people and Shared Sunderland are providing me with training to become an interpreter.”
Abu Shama, 46, manager of the Sunderland Bangladesh International Centre added: “The project is providing practical help to people to integrate into the local community.”
It’s a sentiment shared by ICOS manager Michael Chantkowski.
He said: “There are some areas in Sunderland where people from the BAME community represent 25% of the population. By helping people to integrate we can hopefully bring more diversity to the city which brings more benefits.”
The project has the “full support” of Sunderland City Council and the launch event was attended by the deputy mayor, Cllr Dorothy Trueman, who said: “Last time I was at the centre I spoke with a young lady who’d just arrived in the country. She didn’t speak much English and was afraid to speak to people on the street.
"Today she gave a speech and is now one of the project leaders. As a city it’s important we embrace multiculturalism and diversity.”
The project also has the support of Cllr Usman Ali, the first BAME councillor to serve on the City Council.
He said: “As the son of an immigrant I’ve seen first-hand the challenges faced and I feel this puts me in a perfect position to help other people who move into the city. This project is all about providing support for people to integrate from all minority backgrounds.”
Sunderland Bangladesh International Centre was recently voted as the Community Centre of the Year at the North East Bangladesh Awards.