Stories of Sanctuary is a participatory community storytelling project to enable people living in the city of Durham to share their stories of seeking sanctuary in the North East of England. It stems from the idea that sanctuary is an ancient concept that dates back even before the arrival of the first dwellers in the city of Durham in 995AD, who were a community of monks, carrying an Irish saint – Saint Cuthbert – who became exiled from their home on the Island of Lindisfarne by the Vikings in the 9th century. The project weaves together stories from the past with modern day stories of finding sanctuary from war and conflict, to tell a different narrative about what it means to be living in the North East of England today.

The project, funded by The Arts Council, launched with a series of storytelling workshops with partner organisation Durham City of Sanctuary in June – July 2018 in the city of Durham. The creative output from the workshops including photography, stories, poems and other pieces of creative writing has inspired a folk album of songs woven with narrative, curated by singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher and viola player Raghad Haddad from the National Syrian Orchestra, who is herself a refugee from Syria. The album was launched at Durham Cathedral on the 19th October 2019.

Over a thousand years of sanctuary

Durham would not be the city it was today had it not been for a refugee community seeking sanctuary. The history of the concept of ‘sanctuary’ dates even before Saint Cuthbert, as a legal principal put in place to offer refuge for those fleeing the consequences of conflict.

Sanctuary knocker

Sanctuary Knocker on North Entrance to Durham Cathedral

Until the year 1624, the Sanctuary Knocker on Durham Cathedral gave the guilty and wrongly accused protection from the law for 37 days.

Today, Durham is a ‘City of Sanctuary’ for all those who have fled war and persecution and is home to a number of Syrian families who have fled the ongoing civil war in Syria. In 2016, Durham City of Sanctuary – part of a wider movement of cities, towns and counties creating a culture of welcome for all who have fled war – was found to bring communities together to build Durham’s vision of sanctuary. Between the present day and the first arrival of an exiled saint, there’s more to Durham’s history of sanctuary than you might think.

Did you know that in 1886, a Sudanese refugee rescued on the banks of the river Nile found his way to Durham with the help of the Durham Light Infantry? A few decades earlier, Irish migration to the county helped construct the magnificent bridges including Durham Viaduct. In the early 20th century, a few miles north County Durham took in 6000 refugees from Belgian during WW1. Although most returned, some remained and worked in Belmont Iron Works, as well as worked for the three railway stations in Durham. A little further away in South Shields there was a time when white working class communities joined side by side Yemeni seaman in strikes to reform the shipping industry. These untold stories past and present of ordinary folk finding sanctuary are the focus of the Stories of Sanctuary project.

The Arts Council funded project begins with a series of workshops taking place in Durham with participants from diverse backgrounds (June and July 2018), facilitated by singer-songwriter and community arts facilitator Sam Slatcher. The workshops enable people to share their own stories and struggles of finding sanctuary, through creative writing, short stories and the development of songs.

Participants in a Stories of Sanctuary songwriting workshop in Durham

Participants in a Stories of Sanctuary songwriting workshop in Durham, July 2018. Photo by SJ Rudolphi

The debut performance piece that launched a CD of stories and songs was performed at Durham Cathedral on the 19th October 2018. The new songs were performed by Sam, joined by viola player from the National Syrian Orchestra Raghad Haddad (herself a refugee from Syria), along with some of the participants from the workshops.

* The project will be on tour again in the North East of England in Spring 2019 as well as music venues across the UK. More details to follow… *

Sam’s song City of Sanctuary (written in December 2016) in support of the musicians from the National Syrian Orchestra who came to Durham to perform a rare exclusive gig at the Empty Shop, can be found here.

The project has received National Lottery funding via the Arts Council’s Grant for the Arts programme.