“The aim is to offer a warm, welcoming environment where asylum seekers can relax, have a hot meal, make friends and have access to newspapers and advice.”
That was how Gillian Reeve, our founder, summarised the centre’s work over 25 years ago – and it’s still at the heart of what we do.
The beginning of SDCAS
Legislation changes in the mid-1990s made life for asylum seekers significantly harder. Benefits were reduced, some support was cut altogether, and a group of community leaders, church leaders and ESOL teachers were noticing homelessness and poverty on a scale they hadn’t seen before. They decided to act and started fundraising for a new drop-in for asylum seekers at the Copleston Centre in Peckham.
Pauline Nandoo answered an ad for a job there, and soon she was joined by Bettina Dreier. Initially, 25 clients came. Funding was uncertain but, in 1999, Pauline secured a grant from the National Lottery, and the centre started accepting clients at the Peckham Settlement on Goldsmith Road and at Crossway, a church on New Kent Road.
This was very near a hotel where a large number of Kosovan refugees were being housed, and the council wanted SDCAS to help them settle in the community.
Since then, we’ve moved premises a few times (a home of our own is a long-held dream), but community cohesion is still a big theme. On any given day, our centre is full of people from all over the world, from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan. Our volunteers, including a growing group of past clients, are an impressively dedicated and diverse group.
Both Pauline and Bettina are still with SDCAS – Pauline as Director and Bettina as Centre Manager – and Pauline has since been recognised with an MBE for her work in the sector.
The strength of the SDCAS team came to the fore during the Covid-19 lockdown when we were reluctantly forced to scale back our face-to-face activities. We set up an emergency food bank and a delivery service, as well as remote triaging and advice to help ensure that our most vulnerable clients weren’t falling between the cracks.
Today, we see around 200 clients each week for advice, classes, therapeutic activities or just a chat. We expect that number to grow, and we’ll continue doing whatever we can to meet the demand. If you’d like to play a part in our next chapter, there are lots of ways to support us.