THE campaign to turn Swindon into a ‘city of sanctuary’ got underway in front of a full house on Thursday night with a packed programme of speakers and entertainers.

The nationwide movement, which has now spread to over 70 towns and cities, looks to encourage individuals, businesses and organisations to pledge their commitment to creating a more tolerant and welcoming environment for those seeking refuge.

The launch event, held at The Platform on Faringdon Road, coincided with the first night of the inaugural Harbour Fest – a three day multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary arts festival to raise money for the Harbour Project.

Addressing the full house at the start of proceedings, City of Sanctuary steering group member, Annie Vickers, said: “It’s really wonderful to see so many people here – here to support refugees and asylum seekers in Swindon.

“Thank you to everyone involved, you have started something beautiful.

“We really hope that people come away from this evening feeling energised and inspired and knowing that you can really do something practical and positive.”

The City of Sanctuary stall saw a steady flow of willing pledge signatories throughout the evening - Tiffy Allen, national co-ordinator of City of Sanctuary, made the trip from Ireland to be part of the occasion.

Clearly impressed with the show of support and the spirit of inclusivity, she said that it appeared Swindon already had many of the qualities that were central to being a ‘city of sanctuary.’

David Rowlands, Chair of Trustees at the Harbour Project, told those in attendance: “I’ve been involved with the Harbour Project for the best part of 15 years.

“I’ve seen it grown inexorably from a tiny organisation offering a warm welcome and a safe place for socialising to a much more complex endeavour.

“Our drop-in centre in Broad Street is a hive of activity run by our exceptional staff of four, supported by a dedicated volunteer force that would make any other charity envious.

“However my dearest wish is that the need for the Harbour Project did not exist - that there were no frightened and vulnerable people needing our support.

“But the scale of conflict in the world and the numbers of people fleeing those conflicts, with the international community seemingly unable to resolve those conflicts, makes that a very pious wish indeed.”

The event, and the wider campaign, also received a welcome endorsement from South Swindon MP, Robert Buckland.

Mr Buckland spoke of those, including himself, who had moved to Swindon to make it home over the years.

Supporting the notion of Swindon as a place of sanctuary, he said it was a goal that everyone in the community should work towards.

But perhaps the contribution that will stick with everyone who was at The Platform on Thursday came from Kurdish asylum seeker Ali Mohammedyan.

Ali came to Swindon with his family just ten months ago. A fabulous singer, he had not performed in public since his arrival.

Until Thursday - as he took to the stage, with his wife and young daughters in the audience, you could have heard a pin drop.

With no supporting instruments and no backing track, he held the audience in his hand with every note.

As he finished, they roared with appreciation.

In the course of three minutes Ali turned from looking hesitant and unsure, to being overcome with the warmth of strangers.

It was a fitting way to mark the start of a campaign which looks set to grow from strength to strength.