Just Another Day at the Crowne Plaza
A few weeks ago, I was delivering food packages from Hillingdon Foodbank to individuals unable to leave their homes to visit one of our distribution centres - typically people who are shielding or self-isolating, because of the pandemic.
One of the addresses on my delivery list that day prompted me to raise an eyebrow: “Room 2338*, Crowne Plaza Hotel, West Drayton.” I had not delivered emergency food supplies to someone staying at a hotel before. Also, I am aware that the Crowne Plaza is one of the more luxurious hotels by Heathrow Airport and consequently not one to associate with Foodbank users.
On arrival, I found the car park empty and the hotel itself surrounded by a high wooden fence. Security guards on the gate were reluctant to let me in, but eventually they phoned through to room 2338. Its occupant, a woman in her 30’s, persuaded them to unlock the gates and let her escort my van through to the hotel building.
As I entered the compound around the hotel, I was faced with a scene redolent of the refugee camps shown in TV news bulletins. Scores of men, women and children wandered aimlessly around the hotel garden. They were wearing shabby clothes and seemed very weary. The high fence ensured that they could not see beyond the compound. The children, in particular, looked very bored - there were no toys or play equipment. Despite it being a gloriously sunny day, there was a pall of depression hanging over the place.
My van stirred a great deal of interest among the crowd. When I opened the back door - in hindsight, not a wise move - to reveal that it was packed with food, that interest developed into a stampede as everyone thronged round, assuming that I was making a general delivery for everyone.
I tried to explain that the bags I was off-loading were for one particular family and that the rest of the food in the van was for me to deliver to families elsewhere, but that did nothing to reduce the clamour. Everyone pressed forward and small children were tugging at my jacket, pointing at their mouths and crying, “Please! Hungry!.”
At this point, it seemed that my best course of action would be to distribute all the food on the van to the crowd and then return to the Foodbank to reload supplies for my other deliveries. However, I remembered that the food on the van would be of little use to them. The supplies I was delivering for the woman and two children in Room 2338 consisted of items that could be prepared with only a kettle to help - powdered soup, Pot Noodles etc. - the rest of the food in the van - for example, tinned meat, packets of pasta - would be of little use to these people living in a hotel room.
Fortunately, security guards intervened and cleared the crowd from around me. They ensured that the woman from Room 2338 could collect her food package and escorted me back through the gate. I emerged into a more familiar world, somewhat shaken. The security guards had explained to me that the Crowne Plaza Hotel is now a detention centre for asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers are often in the news and usually for negative reasons. The newspapers demonise them as parasites who are only coming to this country to exploit our welfare system, harass women and foment terrorism. It is very easy to accept this perspective at face value because we have so little direct contact with asylum seekers from which to form our own opinions. They are held in detention camps and either deported back to their country of origin or spirited away to locations far from London.
While there are clearly examples of asylum seekers who are here for the wrong reasons, there is also a sizable proportion who are families, scrambling to escape war, tyranny and persecution in their homelands.
Take a moment to imagine how desperate you must be to uproot yourself, your wife or husband and your children from everything that is familiar; to leave behind your extended family, your friends, and most of everything you own; trek across a continent; give pitiless crooks your life savings so you can clamber aboard a flimsy rubber boat to sail across a stormy sea - all to to reach a country that you believe offers your children the chance of a better life.
How lucky are we to live in a relatively stable, just and wealthy society? How lucky are we that we have never had to face the heart-wrenching decisions that asylum seekers face every day? How, therefore, can we stand by and ignore their plight?
I am ashamed to say that I have regarded asylum seekers with suspicion, as a nuisance that we can do without given all the other problems our country is facing. Why don’t they stay in France? Why doesn’t some other country help them?
My experience at the Crowne Plaza Hotel taught me that many (most? nearly all?) are ordinary, decent families facing mind-boggling challenges. Whoever they are, it is our duty as Christian people to help them (see Matthew 25:35-40).
It was therefore encouraging to see the appeal by our Area Dean to support the initiative from Bell Farm Christian Centre to provide food and clothing for the people at these detention centres.
In order to make it as easy as possible for you to respond, we will collect donations at St Martin’s and transfer them on your behalf to Bell Farm. Please leave your donations at the back of church in the space indicated under the bread cupboard.
* The room number has been changed to protect the identity of the occupant.