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When the White Van Arrives ...

Fatima House volunteers

... it Comes Filled with Hope!

By Nathalie Martysch

Situated close to the center of Birmingham, United Kingdom, Fatima House is operated by the Birmingham Archdiocese and the Columban Fathers and offers shelter for women asylum seekers.

I have worked alongside my husband at Fatima House since its beginning. In fact it was from before that because, together with other organizations, we were part of the planning, designing and implementation of the project. It opened in July 2016 and so far has supported 27 women.

Lent is a special time for Catholic faithful around the world. It is a time when they are invited to reflect on Jesus’ passion and His 40-day fast in the desert. It begins on Ash Wednesday when we receive a cross of ash on our foreheads as a sign of repentance and conversion and finishes on Easter Sunday when we celebrate the central message of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When I think of Lent, the image of the women at Fatima House comes to mind. These women are fasting from both food and many of the basics of life and also suffer a long, agonizing wait for a new life. They are patiently and desperately waiting for the Home Office to recognize them as asylum seekers. Some of them have been waiting for as long as eighteen years. They wait for a favorable outcome to their claim for asylum. They wait for their call to go to the Home Office reporting center and hope they will not be detained there. They wait for someone from home to send them some “official evidence” which might support their claim for asylum. They wait for the NHS (National Health Service) certificate which will enable them to access free medical treatment and so many more things they need. They are constantly waiting for the post and a letter from the Home Office, hoping for some news of progress in their case.

The also wait for the white van! The white van comes to Fatima House when a woman is granted Section 4 support. This means that she is recognized as an asylum seeker and will be provided with some form of accommodation and $49 per week. This is only one step on their wait; it doesn’t mean that they have the right to remain in the UK or find a job or to study.

The white van comes to Fatima House now and then, and every time it comes there is a celebration for someone. It means liberation, new life and hope for someone! There are shouts of joy and tears of happiness, but also sadness for the friends they leave behind to continue the wait.

I feel very privileged to share my life with these women. Each one has taught me in some way or other about resilience and survival and hope and, above all, about faith. They say it is faith that sustains them. The Home Office can strip them of everything but their faith. Among those waiting at Fatima House are women of Christian faith and of Muslim and other religions. We volunteers cannot help noticing how faithfully they fast or practice other customs of their respective religions. One of the women said: “It is perhaps the only freedom we experience here. We can decide for ourselves to fast or not fast and nobody can question that.”

They are grateful to God for the hospitality and help they receive at Fatima House and many of them pray each day that God will look after them. We can say that Lent is always continuing at Fatima House. We all wait in hope for good news to break into the lives of these faithful women. We wait for the Risen Lord to bless all of us.

Columban lay missionary Nathalie Martysch lives and works in Britain.