Sleep­less nights bring Syr­i­ans to Wales

Com­mu­nity group in Nar­berth of­fers refuge af­ter year-long strug­gle

The Guardian Weekly - - Uk News - Steven Mor­ris

There are no mosques, few for­eign­ers and the near­est Mus­lim com­mu­nity is miles away. You have to drive al­most an hour even to reach the start of the mo­tor­way and the weather can take some get­ting used to. In short, it may not seem the most ob­vi­ous place to re­set­tle a trau­ma­tised Syr­ian fam­ily.

But at 5am one day ear­lier this month, a 17-seater bus set out from the small Welsh mar­ket town of Nar­berth (pop­u­la­tion 2,400) to pick up seven refugees from Birm­ing­ham air­port. Ev­ery­one was ner­vous. It was the cul­mi­na­tion of a year-long process.

“It’s been tough,” said Jill Simp­son, a mem­ber of the Croeso Ar­berth (Nar­berth Wel­comes) group. “But now I can see the start of an­other jour­ney, the jour­ney of them set­tling and be­com­ing in­te­grated.”

It all be­gan last sum­mer with an­other Nar­berth woman, Chris­tine Hughes, a re­tired men­tal health nurse, suf­fer­ing sleep­less nights. “I kept go­ing on to sites about refugees and get­ting com­pletely cut up about it. I couldn’t sleep think­ing about what those peo­ple were go­ing through.”

Hughes got in touch with the or­gan­i­sa­tion Hi­raeth Hope (hi­raeth is a Welsh word mean­ing home­sick­ness), which works with refugees, and it told her about the gov­ern­ment’s newly minted com­mu­nity spon­sor­ship scheme. A hand­ful of peo­ple met in the back­room of a church and de­cided to try to bring a Syr­ian fam­ily to Nar­berth.

It was stand­ing room only when the fledg­ling Croeso Ar­berth group held an event in the town ex­plain­ing the scheme. “We knew then we were on to some­thing,” said Hughes.

The gov­ern­ment launched com­mu­nity spon­sor­ship in July 2016. So far 53 in­di­vid­u­als have been re­set­tled by 10 groups in the UK. Com­mu­nity spon­sor­ship sits along­side the Syr­ian vul­ner­a­ble per­sons re­set­tle­ment scheme, un­der which the gov­ern­ment has pledged to re­set­tle 20,000 Syr­ian refugees by 2020. Both schemes are aimed at refugees in the great­est need, in­clud­ing sur­vivors of vi­o­lence and tor­ture, peo­ple need­ing ur­gent med­i­cal treat­ment and women and chil­dren who are at risk.

Groups wish­ing to wel­come fam­i­lies must pro­vide a plan show­ing how they will pro­vide all that the fam­ily may need, such as hous­ing, ac­cess to med­i­cal care, English lan­guage tu­ition and the sup­port for them to move to­wards in­de­pen­dence. There are many hoops to jump through. And it is not cheap. Re­set­tled fam­i­lies are el­i­gi­ble for state ben­e­fits but groups must raise at least £4,500 ($5,900) per adult as a “de­posit” to be used in an emer­gency and find ex­tra money for ex­penses rang­ing from in­ter­pret­ing ser­vices to fur­ni­ture and house­hold ba­sics.

Croeso Ar­berth raised money through spon­sored walks, garage sales, mu­sic events. Many have do­nated money and goods. A core group of 12 has led, helped by a fur­ther dozen reg­u­lar “do­ers”, but around 140 are in Hughes’s Croeso email group. Through­out it has been sup­ported by Cit­i­zens UK, a char­ity that helps com­mu­ni­ties act to­gether for power, so­cial jus­tice and the com­mon good.

By April, the group had the money and sup­port in place and iden­ti­fied a suit­able pri­vately rented house in a cul-de-sac. Then it was a mat­ter of wait­ing for a fam­ily. It all hap­pened quickly in the end. A fam­ily of seven was matched with the Nar­berth group and they had 10 days to get their house ready. Forty-eight hours be­fore the Syr­ian fam­ily was due to ar­rive, Hughes and Simp­son were mak­ing last-minute prepa­ra­tions.

The group still had scant de­tails of the fam­ily. “There are a lot of un­knowns,” said Simp­son, whose day job is work­ing for Pem­brokeshire coast na­tional park. “We know they have been liv­ing in hard­ship for years but don’t know what state they will be in, how trau­ma­tised they will be. There are so many things that might make it not work.”

Hughes con­ceded she was wor­ried. “My main fear is that they don’t like us. They may want to move. If they can hang on for a year [groups must pro­vide sup­port for 12 months and hous­ing for 24] then we’ll have done our bit.” Hughes and Simp­son were pleased to learn that some of the fam­ily had skills – in car­pen­try and tai­lor­ing. “That may help them in­te­grate,” said Hughes.

Not all Nar­berth peo­ple were thrilled. Some ex­pressed con­cerns that the fam­ily could be ter­ror­ists. “There are one or two peo­ple who are fear­ful,” said Simp­son. “One woman came to a meet­ing and said the chil­dren would be ter­ri­fied and wouldn’t come out to play. Nar­berth is not a very mul­ti­cul­tural place. Some peo­ple would say this is not the right town to bring a fam­ily like this to. But I think tack­ling prej­u­dices is as im­por­tant as of­fer­ing shel­ter.”

One of the two in­ter­preters who went to the air­port meet­ing, Agnes Or­bach, said: “We don’t know how well they will ad­just to our cul­ture, things like young peo­ple’s free­doms, how we dress. The weather will also be an is­sue, of course.”

De­clan Connolly, the chair of the group and a well-known fig­ure in Nar­berth’s mu­sic scene, said he was al­ways sure the project would work. “I’m very ex­cited. I imag­ine it’s go­ing to be very strange and dif­fi­cult for them but we have the good will to make it work.”

The wel­come party came with ban­ners, gifts and choco­lates. Hughes blew up bal­loons and sent Jonathan Cox, deputy di­rec­tor of Cit­i­zens UK, off to buy felt pens to write the names of the fam­ily on them. Flight TK1967 touched down from Is­tan­bul just be­fore 10am. Hughes felt sick as she waited at the bar­rier for the fam­ily to be es­corted into ar­rivals by an of­fi­cial from the In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Mi­gra­tion.

And sud­denly they were there. All the fam­ily’s be­long­ings fit­ted on just four trol­leys. Though they had been trav­el­ling for 24 hours the fam­ily smiled and laughed. The Guardian has been asked not to iden­tify the fam­ily or where they are liv­ing to give them time to set­tle in pri­vacy and peace.

The women kissed the fe­male mem­bers of the greet­ing party; the men shook hands. They spoke lit­tle English but the youngest fam­ily mem­ber in­di­cated he wanted a group pho­to­graph to re­mem­ber the mo­ment. “It’s was a priv­i­lege to be part of that mo­ment,” said Cox. “One of the men was talk­ing about how he wanted peo­ple to un­der­stand about Syria and Islam, that they are not a threat. They were keen to make a good first im­pres­sion.”

The fu­ture is not en­tirely clear for the fam­ily. They only have the right to stay for five years, af­ter which they can ap­ply for in­def­i­nite leave to re­main. But for the time be­ing they can be sure they will have shel­ter and care.

“It feels great,” said Hughes. “I get the feel­ing they knew they are wanted, which they are. How sat­is­fy­ing is that?”

Com­pas­sion … Chris­tine Hughes and Jill Simp­son re­homed a fam­ily of seven

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