SYRIAN REFUGEES: A YEAR IN WORCESTERSHIRE
Marking the 1st anniversary of the arrival of refugee families under the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme
In late June 2016, a passenger jet from Turkey touched down at Birmingham Airport. Among those on board were a small group of weary families, from babies to elderly grandparents, all of them refugees from war-scarred Syria.
They stepped off the plane to a warm welcome from Refugee Action and British Red Cross charity workers, ready to support the new arrivals in those first traumatic hours and days as they headed to new homes, and safety, in Worcestershire.
Other families followed over the next few months until there were a total of 14 households, totalling 50 refugees, from infants to grandparents.
This was Worcestershire's response to the Government's appeal to local authorities to contribute to the Syrian Resettlement Programme, a Home Office project which pledged to provide a safe haven and a new start for thousands of vulnerable people.
Worcestershire County Council commissioned the national charity Refugee Action to provide integration and independence services to the families, who had all met strict criteria for support via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The charity has more than 30 years experience of resettlement, supporting traumatised families to rebuild their lives in dignity.
Councillor Lucy Hodgson, Worcestershire County Council's Cabinet Member for Communities, has responsibility for overseeing the Programme.
Speaking at the start of Refugee Week (June 19-25), she said: "We are really pleased with the progress that families have made since arriving in Worcestershire.
"There are clear signs that some families are in a position to carry out tasks independently and access mainstream services for support.
"We recognise that each family has individual needs around, for example, health, housing and access to services, and we continue to work closely with them to address any issues.
"Local communities have provided a key role in supporting these families to become independent and self-reliant, so that they have the opportunity to prosper, be healthy and happy in their new lives in Worcestershire."
In this short video she reflects on the progress so facr:
Some of our new residents have reflected on their journeys and their first year in Worcestershire - and to look ahead to their hopes and ambitions for the future.
To protect relatives still caught up in the war raging in Syria, we are unable to share the full identities and faces of the refugee families. The situation in Syria remains volatile and there continues to be a risk of retribution to relatives of those seen to be embracing life in the west.
But refugees were keen to praise those who have supported them so far, and to show their home community that there is hope beyond Syria.
A FAMILY'S STORY
One of Worcestershire's newly settled families - parents Safaa and Mousa and their three daughters Lara, 17, Rayan, 14, and Raghad, 10 - were forced to flee their home amid increasing violence and indiscriminate bombings.
The family had enjoyed a happy life in the beautiful historic city of Aleppo. The girls all enjoyed school with their friends; relatives lived close by and family celebrations were frequent; and Mousa had his own textiles business, running his own shop close to the family home, specialising in sewing buttonholes and buttons.
The rapid upscaling of war in 2014 brought their lives to a crashing standstill. Violence, gunfire and bombings were becoming appallingly regular. Schools were closed, there were food shortages and power cuts, and life swiftly became impossible.
Sisters Rayan and Lara, both bright and engaging students, tell their family's story in English, helping to translate the recollections of their parents.
"Life in Syria was not bearable and we were not safe. We could not stay there. We lived in the war for a year but could not be there any more."
As soon as it was safe to do so, in 2014, the family fled for their lives. They boarded a safe bus bound for the Turkish border, joining millions heading in the same direction.
"We could not take much with us apart from the clothes we wore and a few other things. We travelled by bus over the border into Turkey. There were lots of refugees there, all trying to stay safe."
Mousa found the family rented accommodation to live in and found work in a textiles factory, but pay was very poor.
"It was bad for us in Turkey. Life was very hard and we still did not feel safe. The house was very bad. We did not feel welcome. It was very hard work and we were not able to go to school."
In 2016 the family successfully applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for refugee status and resettlement. By this time they had become aware that back in Syria, their family home and the shop that Mousa had worked so hard to open had been bombed. "There is just a part of our house still there," says Lara.
The lengthy process involved in being granted the right to resettle involved questioning of all members of the family, background checks and thorough vetting of their lives - "this was very hard, to have to speak about everything we had seen, it was hard," says Lara.
While their journey towards safety proceeded, the city they had left behind was in turmoil - as shown by this compelling drone footage, featured on international broadcaster Euronews in November 2016.
Aleppo, November 2016
The family vividly recall the day they arrived in England back in August. They were part of the third group to arrive in Worcestershire.
"We were very tired but the welcome was very good and we knew we were in a place that wanted to see us. We were very happy to come here and we are very happy now."
"We have a nice house, and can go to school, and we have been very welcome. This makes us very happy. The people here are very helpful and it is so nice to be here."
The family have settled in quickly into the rhythm of their new life in Worcestershire.
They have developed close bonds with other refugee families living in their neighbourhood, including a family of relatives living two streets away. The families spend a lot of time together at welcome events, language courses and in each other's homes. Some pray together and share memories of their homeland.
They have been learning English together at a college in Birmingham, but have also received support from a volunteer who visits several families around the county delivering one-on-one informal lessons to supplement their studies. The families also attend a weekly 'conversation cafe' set up by supportive local volunteers.
Mousa and Safaa are also studying additional skills, particularly supported by Worcestershire County Council's Libraries and Learning Service. They are both taking IT courses at a local library, where their tutor describes all of her Syrian students as "a joy to teach".
Mousa is also practising his textiles skills and the family recently received a redundant sewing machine from their local refugee support group.
Meanwhile, Safaa is gaining additional experience and confidence helping out in a local charity shop.
Lara has yet to decide where her ambitions lie, but is currently thinking about a career in childcare, once her English is of sufficiently high standard. Rayan has ambitions to go to university. Their younger sister is enjoying making friends at primary school - during our interview she whizzed in and out of the front door, smiling and greeting me warmly in between playing outside with friends.
They are, together, doing their utmost to build a strong, independent life here in Worcestershire.
Simple things make a big difference to the quality of their lives. For example, the families recently discovered shops in Birmingham selling Arabic ingredients, helping the families enjoy a taste of home. Says Rayan: "My mother cooks all the time for us. English food is a lot different to what we usually eat."
They still desperately miss home, of course.
"Syria is in our hearts. We miss our family, we have so many family still in Syria or living elsewhere, grandparents and uncles and aunties, so many. We try to speak on the telephone, we try to speak every day.
"We hope they are always safe. Sometimes it is scary. We cry for everyone but we are happy to be safe and together."
But a return to Syria in the near future is an unlikely prospect.
"We love Syria but our house in Aleppo is over 50% destroyed, and my dad's shop is destroyed. Our future is better here, we have a future here but not so much in Syria.
"The best thing is that we are all okay. Many people are not. So many are not safe. All of the families, we have all lost someone. But we are all safe and together. That is the most important thing to us, the only thing."
MOVING TOWARDS INDEPENDENCE
The 14 families are each accessing a range of learning opportunities.
In Kidderminster, the families have joined beginners' IT courses run at their local library. Their tutor, Natasha White, has supported 11 refugees in their quest to master basic computing skills - which of course includes mastering new keyboards in English rather than Arabic script.
Says Natasha: "Over this first year I have taught 11 learners from Syria across four different classes, including people from different generations engaging in technology together.
"We have three classes with people from mixed backgrounds, from different cultures, work situations and ethnic backgrounds. We discuss British values and culture as a group and focus on inclusion. We look at where Syria is in relation to us. Most importantly they all feel safe and happy."
One 21 year old refugee, who was a student in Syria, is racing through IT classes while also extending his understanding and use of English. Says Natasha: "He has shown superb development over the past six months." He is now being supported to complete job applications.
Tutor Sara Evans has delivered a cookery course for refugees, introducing them to English foods, healthy eating and shopping. The course is part of Worcestershire County Council's Community Learning initiative, funded by the Skills Funding Agency.
Community Learning Manager Susan Lewis praised Sara's dedication to the cookery initiative. "She has adapted the content that is traditionally used on this community course so it is culturally sensitive (for example, no meat dishes because we were unable initially to source halal meat) and she created learning resources in English and Arabic."
The Cook4Life course culminated in a celebration event in May, when the participants were all presented with certificates for completing the course.
A follow up course starts in September, this time focussed on 'foods of the world' when the families will be invited to share their cooking experiences with other local adults.
Families in another part of Worcestershire completed a course in 'making clothes for children' and have started a new course, called Sewing, Crafts and Conversation.
Additional plans are in place to offer hair and beauty community courses, with a view to offering a stepping stone to formal vocational courses in the near future.
Susan Lewis and her team have overseen a range of projects involving the refugee families as part of a commitment to adult learning across the county.
She said: "The refugees are among the 3,000 or so adults we support annually, from one-day workshops to year-long programmes. Commissioned in response to local need and funded by the Skills Funding Agency, many of our courses are free for those who meet concessions criteria. I genuinely hope to see our refugee families on lots more of our courses in the coming years.
"Around 80% of adults on our courses report feeling more confident learners, while 68% report feeling less socially isolated. These invaluable outcomes are achieved across all sectors of our local community, not just among our Syrian residents whose fundamental needs are no different to our own."
supporting THE refugees: refugee action
The charity Refugee Action were commissioned by Worcestershire County Council to support the resettlement programme.
Maneesha Raju is the charity's resettlement manager for Worcestershire:
"One year on, I'm happy that all our families have arrived safely and are settled in their new homes. They are becoming independent and self-reliant.
"It’s incredibly difficult coming to a new country where you don’t speak the language and with a totally different culture. At Refugee Action, our empowerment model of resettlement is about supporting people to do things for themselves and it’s been great to see the families adapt to life in Worcestershire and start building their future support networks.
"They’re there for each other and have been really proactive in wanting to learn English and pursue volunteering opportunities.
"After everything they’ve been through, the families also want access to the familiar; the cuisine and culture of their home country. The voluntary support groups have helped them go on trips to Birmingham to buy some of the food and goods they’re used to. They’re also great at building their own social connections - in one area the families befriended a local bus driver whose route takes him to Birmingham where he picks up halal meat for them!
"They come up with their own innovative solutions. The cultural differences are also inspiring business ideas. One of the women enjoys baking Syrian pastries, which led to an opportunity to make them for a local farmers’ market stall at Christmas time. Other families are interested in opening up cafés.
"We recently organised for them to attend a business clinic at Worcestershire University to learn about starting small businesses."
"Many of our volunteers have told me they’re interested in Syrian culture and have really appreciated getting to know the families and understand where they’re from. Learning and experiencing new things has definitely worked both ways.
"We’ve been supporting the families since the beginning. It was a bright and sunny early morning in late June last year when we met the first two Syrian families at the airport. I was there with a resettlement caseworker, an Arabic interpreter and staff from the British Red Cross.
"Over the next few months we welcomed a total of 50 refugees. The families were tired after their long journeys and often felt overwhelmed, but they were all happy to be here and looking forward to rebuilding their lives in safety.
"We took them to their new homes, which had been fitted out with household essentials such as furniture and stairgates by the Red Cross, and a welcome package, including necessities such as tea, milk, bread and nappies.
"Over their first week, our caseworkers visited the families every day to ensure they were registered with their local GP, had access to the right support and that the children were enrolled in schools and colleges. These visits have become less frequent as the families have needed less support and have become more integrated.
"Refugee Action seeks to support people to be as independent as possible and not to become reliant on support so they can build their lives in the UK."
She added: "One of the biggest challenges has been making sure the adults have access to English language lessons. We did a lot of advocacy work on their behalf as local colleges had long waiting lists and limited availability for entry level classes.
"It’s been frustrating for the families. Refugees are really determined to learn English and start contributing to their new communities through volunteering, work and socialising with their neighbours. But there can be huge barriers. Research for our national Let Refugees Learn http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/campaigns/let_refugees_learn/ campaign recently found that some refugees are waiting up to two years to start English lessons.
"Locally, the welcome groups have been fantastic at supporting the refugees to improve their English with conversation cafés and one-to-one volunteer support.
"We rely on our volunteers and welcome groups to provide community level support to help the families integrate. The community in Worcestershire has made a huge contribution, the welcome groups, local neighbourhoods, church groups – everybody has been so helpful and welcoming.
"One of my personal highlights was an event held in May in Worcester, which showed how far the families have come in terms of feeling settled and the friendships that have developed since they arrived last year."
Refugee Action and the refugee support groups jointly hosted the celebration, when the 50 refugees, volunteers and representatives enjoyed a beautiful Syrian buffet, sang songs together and played games.
"My hopes for their futures are that they will continue to get the support needed to learn English and overcome the language barrier that can hold people back. They are determined and proactive, and I believe they’ll achieve their aspirations."
SUPPORTING THE REFUGEES: volunteerS
Michael Burford is a member of the Wyre Forest Refugee Support Group. The voluntary organisation was set up by members of Stourport's Justice & Peace group, a multi-denominational faith charity.
"We were all moved and incensed by what was happening to the people who were forced out of Syria and we wanted to see what we could do to help," explains Michael, whose wife Bridget is also a supporter.
Initially the group supported charities in Birmingham who were collecting clothes and essentials for refugees trapped in the Calais camps.
But after hearing about the council's plans to bring refugee families to Worcestershire, the group offered its full support for any families resettling in the Wyre Forest area.
Said Michael: "It was October before we were first introduced to families living locally. The council and Refugee Action were rightly cautious about giving access to the refugees, who had obviously been through traumatic experiences. They continue to be very protective of them, as are we.
"We decided we would like to host a welcome lunch for the families, and invited them to a private gathering in Bewdley. It exceeded our expectations. It was wonderful - the families joined in planting crocuses in the park, and visited the museum, and together we ate a beautiful Arabic-themed lunch. For some of the refugees it was their first opportunity to eat food from home since they had arrived; they really appreciated our welcome."
"Our links and friendships have developed very much since then - the families know we are there for them and we are available to offer them advice on all sorts of things."
Angela, a volunteer, talks about the assistance given by the refugee support groups and the huge positive impact of the refugees. She was speaking at a celebration event to mark the first year of the arrival of the first refugees in Worcestershire:
The group hosts a regular 'conversation cafe', providing families with the chance to practise their English, share stories, play games and get more understanding and practical skills to help navigate British culture. Donations are also shared with the families, including clothes, household goods and other basics, to support their quality of life.
During Ramadan the volunteers have supported the families by observing the daylight fast with them while meeting together.
The refugees have been supported to accomplish all sorts of practical tasks - helping them get to know the local area, use public transport, visit supermarkets and the library and so on.
Refugee Action and the volunteer groups have also brought in other assistance, people eager to help who can provide specialist support, including teachers who provide one-to-one sessions in family homes, supplementing their official English language courses.
Here Celia, a qualified ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, talks about her experience supporting the refugee families:
"Supporting the refugees has been a wonderful experience for all of us. Our sole motivation was that we wanted to help; we could not believe what was happening to the refugees from Syria and were desperate to do something," says Michael.
"It has taken over our lives a bit; these people who were strangers a year ago have become a huge part of our lives and an absolute priority for us. We want to fulfil their needs and help them the best we can.
"I can honestly say it has been one of the best experiences I have had."
"Their reactions to us and to every little thing we do for them is just wonderful and so warm. They have made it a pleasure."
The group now plans to support the families in their quest for additional qualifications and work experience to improve their chances of employment.
There are refugee support groups also established in Bromsgrove & Redditch, Malvern, Worcester and Evesham.
In addition to the support they provide they also organise fundraising and outings. Bromsgrove and Redditch Welcome Refugees organised a trip to an apple juice business in Herefordshire, the owners helped the refugee families and students from Pershore College to pick and juice apples and produce their own version of the popular Falstaff apple juice, which they specially labelled RefuJuice in tribute to the families.
SYRIAN RESETTLEMENT PROGRAMME: KEY FACTS
In January 2016 Worcestershire's Leaders' Board agreed to host up to 50 Syrian refugees throughout the county. The Board includes the leaders of Worcestershire County, Bromsgrove District, Malvern Hills District, Redditch Borough, Worcester City, Wychavon District and Wyre Forest District councils.
The first eight refugees arrived at the end of June 2016 and the most recent arrivals came in February this year.
The programme is funded centrally by the Home Office and drawn from the Foreign Aid budget.
The Home Office allocates a specified amount of local authority funding for each resettled person. During the first year this equates to £8,520 per individual; with education costs currently at £4,500 for each child aged five to 18 years, and £2,250 for each child aged three to four years.
Further funding to local authorities has been confirmed by the government for years 2-5 of the programme; this consists of a per person tariff tapering from £5,000 in year 2 down to £1,000.
In order to qualify for the programme the family must have been within one of the recognised refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan or Iraq; or be registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and meet one of the following criteria:
· women and girls at risk
· survivors of violence and/or torture
· refugees with legal and/or physical protection needs
· refugees with medical needs or disabilities
· children and adolescents at risk
· persons at risk due to their sexual orientation or gender identity
· refugees with family links in resettlement countries.
More information is contained in a factsheet produced by the Government about the Syrian Resettlement Programme.
The University of Birmingham and other agencies have developed a toolkit for anyone working with Syria's refugees. You can read the toolkit here.
This incredible interactive website, Searching For Syria, is a great source of information and images about the Syrian conflict, produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in association with Google.
Want to know more about Refugee Action? Visit their website