50 years of the St Augustine’s Centre

St Augustine's Centre, Halifax.
St Augustine's Centre, Halifax.

“How would you describe St Augustine’s? I don’t think you can.”

How do you describe a place where around 800 people a month from about 50 countries come together in a spirit of community, respect and support?

Abdul Seddeeq, Sudan. "I am from Sudan. I have been here for seven months. Calderdale is a really good place but I want to travel to my country again."

Abdul Seddeeq, Sudan. "I am from Sudan. I have been here for seven months. Calderdale is a really good place but I want to travel to my country again."

“It’s a blessing to work there,” says centre leader Vicky Ledwidge. “The word unique gets bandied about a lot, but you won’t find anywhere like us!”

The centre began in what was the old vicarage at St Augustine’s Church in 1968, with the arrival of the Reverend King and his family.

St Augustine’s founder Denise Keenan and Mrs King decided to open a pre-school playgroup due to the shortage of nurseries available.

That soon evolved from helping children to adults.

Mansour, Iran. "My name is Mansour. I am from Iran and have been in Calderdale for two years.'"I came because I changed my religion from Islam to Christianity and my government would kill me.'"Calderdale is good but quiet. It has nice views and the people are good at church and St Augustine's. I am happy but miss my family and my mum."

Mansour, Iran. "My name is Mansour. I am from Iran and have been in Calderdale for two years.'"I came because I changed my religion from Islam to Christianity and my government would kill me.'"Calderdale is good but quiet. It has nice views and the people are good at church and St Augustine's. I am happy but miss my family and my mum."

“With children you have parents, and with parents you have problems,” says Denise, from Ovenden, who was made an MBE in 2008.

“But how you solve problems is by listening. It’s no good imposing things on people that they haven’t asked for, so we listened to what they needed and tried to provide it. It’s got to come from the people.”

And 50 years on, Denise is still volunteering at the centre.

“It’s gone so quickly, I don’t know how it’s happened!” she says. “But it’s amazing, it just goes on and on.

Ahmad Zia, Afghanistan. "I'm an asylum seeker. I have lived in Halifax for over two years. During this time I joined St Augustine's Centre, and have found a lot of friends from different countries.'"St Augustine's is a small world where all kinds of people live together.'"I'm a student at Calderdale College. I'm very happy that I can continue my education. I hope to finish my education to become a useful person for society. I like Calderdale. It's a nice calm place for living.'"When I left my country I passed many along the way like Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France. I also lived in Pakistan for nine months and Iran for 18 years but I like to live in the UK.'"I'm very happy here because I'm safe and I can finish my education."

Ahmad Zia, Afghanistan. "I'm an asylum seeker. I have lived in Halifax for over two years. During this time I joined St Augustine's Centre, and have found a lot of friends from different countries.'"St Augustine's is a small world where all kinds of people live together.'"I'm a student at Calderdale College. I'm very happy that I can continue my education. I hope to finish my education to become a useful person for society. I like Calderdale. It's a nice calm place for living.'"When I left my country I passed many along the way like Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France. I also lived in Pakistan for nine months and Iran for 18 years but I like to live in the UK.'"I'm very happy here because I'm safe and I can finish my education."

“We have so many volunteers and they’re all wonderful.”

The centrw works with people from a wide range of backgrounds; Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and vulnerable migrants as well as socially excluded British people

The staff and volunteers run a wide range of activities including advocacy and advice sessions, employability support, English classes, a housing and destitution project, community lunches, and many social events.

Vicky has worked at the centre since 2014, having previously worked for a similar charity in Manchester.

Manal El Rifal Mahjoub, Lebanon. "I am from Lebanon and have been in Calderdale one-and-a-half years with my family.'"I came to Halifax because the Home Office brought us here.'"At first I felt sad because I knew nothing and no-one, but after I visited St Augustine's Centre everything changed when I met this big family.'"I love St Augustine's and I volunteer with them. It's like a big home with my family.'"Calderdale means a lot to me. I don't know where to start.'"I hope to be an interpreter or teacher so Iam trying my best with my studies with the support of St Augustine's, my second home, with all the love and help, no matter what faith or religion they are. Trips, lunches, sport, a women's group, a men's group and so much more."

Manal El Rifal Mahjoub, Lebanon. "I am from Lebanon and have been in Calderdale one-and-a-half years with my family.'"I came to Halifax because the Home Office brought us here.'"At first I felt sad because I knew nothing and no-one, but after I visited St Augustine's Centre everything changed when I met this big family.'"I love St Augustine's and I volunteer with them. It's like a big home with my family.'"Calderdale means a lot to me. I don't know where to start.'"I hope to be an interpreter or teacher so Iam trying my best with my studies with the support of St Augustine's, my second home, with all the love and help, no matter what faith or religion they are. Trips, lunches, sport, a women's group, a men's group and so much more."

“Statistics from Migration Yorkshire tell us we’re working with 90 per cent more people than we were two years ago,” she says, “and we’re one of the busiest migrant support centres in the north of England.

“It’s a very special place. It’s the people who make it special.

“The people that come to us for help will call us their family.

“Everybody calls our founder Mama Denise.”

There are more than 200 volunteers and at the centre, which regularly welcomes 60-70 people a day, either coming for lunch, help and advice or classes.

“Four days a week we have a free community lunch, and we serve around 80 meals a day,” says Vicky. “We’re squeezed with our time, and we’re squeezed financially. The more we have, the more we can give away.

Nour Mahjoub, Lebanon. "I am from Lebanon. I have been in Calderdale for one-and-a-half years. I came here with my parents to be safe, live happily with no problems, sadness or fear.'"Calderdale means a lot to me, from my school Ling Bob, the support and training we do at school, the help of St Augustine's Centre, all the lovely places we visit with them - trips, the cinema, Orange Box and many others.'"I love Halifax and Calderdale. I hope to be a doctor in the future."

Nour Mahjoub, Lebanon. "I am from Lebanon. I have been in Calderdale for one-and-a-half years. I came here with my parents to be safe, live happily with no problems, sadness or fear.'"Calderdale means a lot to me, from my school Ling Bob, the support and training we do at school, the help of St Augustine's Centre, all the lovely places we visit with them - trips, the cinema, Orange Box and many others.'"I love Halifax and Calderdale. I hope to be a doctor in the future."

“As long as we can keep paying the bills, we’ll keep going. Any charity will tell you that core costs are hard to cover at the moment.

“My biggest challenge is paying things like electricity and food bills. Without those, we can’t operate.”

A new exhibition at the Piece Hall is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the centre, and is running until August 12.

“We were funded by All One Collective, a social change organisation, to do some workshops to generate artwork and poetry, which are brilliant and come from a real mix of demographics,” explains Vicki.

“The Piece Hall gifted us some space to showcase what we do, and we have six portraits of some of the incredible people we’ve helped.

“We’re keen to grow this so people can learn more about what makes Calderdale so special. We have luggage labels with questions on about Calderdale and the future, which people can answer and put on the wall.

“On July 14 and 28, from 11am to 1pm, we will have a pop-up photography studio which can be added to our collage, and hopefully we can take the exhibition elsewhere and it will grow and grow.

“The response from the public has been lovely, people have said they’ve been really inspired by it.”

The centre costs around £400,000 a year to run. It was named Charity of the Year at last year’s Community Foundation for Calderdale Community Spirit Awards, with founder Denise Keenan winning the Outstanding Achievement Award.

“On one hand, it hasn’t changed because it’s always been about the people who come,” says Vicki. “But on the other hand, it’s changed massively because the people who are coming have got such different needs.

“There are a lot more in-depth mental health needs now, maybe because people are more comfortable talking about them, or maybe more people are fleeing horrible situations.

“Calderdale became a dispersal area under the asylum system in 2001, so we were then serving a different client group and needed a different set of skills.

“Then in 2014/15 at the beginning of the refugee crisis, everything went a bit crazy when the photo of Alan Kurdi went viral.

“Calderdale Council, who have been incredible, pledged very quickly to bring people in under the Syrian Resettlement Scheme.

“We welcomed people into, I think, the first plane that came into the UK.

“Our job is to react to what’s going in the world, and we don’t know what is going to happen, so we just need to keep our doors open.

“But we will react, and we’ll react well. That’s what we do.”

Mohamed Al Amine Mahjoub, Lebanon. "I am 13 years old. I live in Halifax. I am from Lebanon. I have been here for one-and-a-half years with my family.'"I came here to live in freedom, to feel more confident and safe. It's important to be ha\ppy and we can go out with no worries.'"Calderdale means so much to me. I feel safe and I can ride my bike feeling free and happy.'"In my country I can't go out, except to school. Calderdale works hard for all the community.'"I hope in the future to be an architect. I went on a trip with St Augustine's Centre to an art project and on a trip to Ogden Water where we did a lot of art and activities.'"I love St Augustine's Centre. I feel it's our second home. They help my parents and we get involved with parties, trips and lunches.'"We are so happy we are in the UK and in Halifax."

Mohamed Al Amine Mahjoub, Lebanon. "I am 13 years old. I live in Halifax. I am from Lebanon. I have been here for one-and-a-half years with my family.'"I came here to live in freedom, to feel more confident and safe. It's important to be ha\ppy and we can go out with no worries.'"Calderdale means so much to me. I feel safe and I can ride my bike feeling free and happy.'"In my country I can't go out, except to school. Calderdale works hard for all the community.'"I hope in the future to be an architect. I went on a trip with St Augustine's Centre to an art project and on a trip to Ogden Water where we did a lot of art and activities.'"I love St Augustine's Centre. I feel it's our second home. They help my parents and we get involved with parties, trips and lunches.'"We are so happy we are in the UK and in Halifax."