Stories of Sanctuary

The first Citizen Songwriters programme was the Stories of Sanctuary project in Durham in June 2018.

“I didn’t realise the talent we have. These songs express exactly how I feel”

Nousayba, Stories of Sanctuary participant

Stories of Sanctuary is a story and songwriting project that brings together diverse residents of Durham who all have a story or two to tell about their journey to the North East of England. Whether ancient stories of seeking sanctuary or stories from refugee journeys today, Stories of Sanctuary showcases the rich history of seeking sanctuary in the North East of England.

Stories of Sanctuary in Durham, June 2018. Photo credit: Simone J Rudolphi

Found in 2018 by singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher, Stories of Sanctuary emerged out of friendships between people seeking sanctuary from Syria, who had settled in Durham in the summer of 2016, and local residents from different walks of life – long-term residents, students of the university, photographers and musicians.

Over a thousand year’s of history…

In the year 995, an exiled community fleeing the Vikings finally settled at the hill top that would one day become Durham Cathedral. For over a hundred years they had been carrying the body of an Irish monk – Saint Cuthbert – who was buried on the Island of Lindisfarne in the year 687.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 St Cuthbert, as a legal principal put in place to offer refuge for those fleeing the consequences of conflict.

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 Belgium during WW1.

“And they boarded a train in Southampton that brought them all the way to Birtley [Co. Durham] and the thing that impressed my family deeply was that at every stop there were women who provided tea and refreshments at every station on the way… I’ve always thought how awful it is to look upon the stranger in our midst as some kind of threat”

Leon, grandson of a Belgian refugee who fled in 1916 and Stories of Sanctuary participant

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.

Songwriting workshops

The Arts Council funded project began in June 2018 with a series of workshops that took place in Durham with participants from diverse backgrounds facilitated by singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher. The project partners include Durham City of Sanctuary, Durham Cathedral and Empty Shop CIC, shaped by the Stories of Sanctuary steering group.

Stories of Sanctuary workshop in Durham, July 2018

The workshops enabled people to share their own stories and struggles of finding sanctuary, through creative writing, short stories and the development of songs. The songs were then written to reflect the diverse influences on folk music rooted in the North East. The opening performance piece launched a CD of stories and songs that featured at Durham Cathedral on the 19th October 2018. The professionally recorded album ‘Stories of Sanctuary’ was recorded at Studio One with folk producer Ron Angus and can be found on Sam’s bandcamp page, or on Spotify and iTunes. 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.

UK Stories of Sanctuary Tour

After a successful Crowdfund Campaign in December 2018, Stories of Sanctuary raise enough funds to take the project to new audiences across the UK in 2019. The project visited Stockton Arts Centre (March 22), Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival (June 22), University of Hull’s Refugee Week (June 23), Hartlepool Waterfront Festival (July 21), the International Festival of Glass, Stourbridge (August 26), Leicester Cathedral for Artreach’s Journeys Festival International (August 27) and Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church in Southampton (Nov 9).

The tour not only brought Stories of Sanctuary’s powerful songs of hope and courage to new audiences, the tour was an opportunity for those from refugee backgrounds to visit new cities and develop their skills. Sabah, one of the tour coordinators and singers, describes the impact of the tour:

“On the tour, we were hosted by local residents. We were welcomed with warm hearts. Music is the language of the world. When I was singing I felt every word I sang. I sang from my heart to all the hearts of the audience. I wanted to tell them that despite pain and sadness, we are brave because sometimes you just need to hope and have faith that things will work out”

Sabah, singer and tour coordinator

You can follow Stories of Sanctuary on the following platforms:

Check out Stories of Sanctuary @SanctuarySongs – original songs inspired and written by those seeking sanctuary in the North East. For more stories, songs and performance dates, visit:

Stories of Sanctuary performing at Leicester Cathedral on 27 August 2019