Toronto Star

War-torn city welcomes war refugees


COVENTRY, U.K.— Destroyed by war 75 years ago, this city is now sheltering a new generation displaced by conflict. One-hundred-and-twenty Syrian refugees are moving into modest council flats, registerin­g their children in school and finding second-hand winter coats.

They are the fortunate few; the United Kingdom has agreed to resettle 20,000 refugees over five years, with 1,000 due to arrive before Christmas, their travel arranged long before the Paris attacks.

The meagre reaction to the migrant crisis has earned the country criticism for a lack of generosity. But Coventry, a West Midlands city of 330,000, is providing a powerful counter-narrative.

Hospitalit­y to outsiders is at the core of its identity, informed by the city’s war-torn past. On Nov. 14, 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the city, including St. Michael’s Cathedral, almost to ruin.

Coventry leaders deliberate­ly left intact the remains of the medieval cathedral — the tower, spire and an outer wall — as a lasting memorial to the war. The words “Father Forgive” are inscribed on the wall behind the altar. A cross of nails was built from tools recovered in the rubble, a symbol of the enduring need for peace and reconcilia­tion.

“This city has a noble legacy of welcoming people in times of need,” says Sabir Zazai, director of Coventry’s Refugee and Migrant Centre. “The number of refugees in the U.K. is very moderate. But individual­ly, we also see an outpouring of generosity. If Europe doesn’t address the refugee crisis then who on Earth will?”

Coventry, along with the city of Bradford, has led the way in Britain when it comes to hosting those who have come so far. “We feel lucky to have this chance to welcome people who need our help,” says Simon Brake, Coventry’s director for primary care.

The Home Office funds refugee families for a year. Local government­s administer the program, contractin­g charities such as the refugee centre to provide counsellin­g and guidance. A case worker follows a refugee family for a year, helping them find a family doctor, sign up for social benefits, shop for halal meat and read the bus schedule.

“There is no textbook on how to integrate refugees,” explains Zazai. “Building trust is key. We try to respond to their unspoken needs.”

The needs can be vast. Many refugees feel the pain of rootlessne­ss and dashed expectatio­ns. They have survived a war, and found a safe haven. Why, then, is life so difficult? Life in a culturally alien society can seem insurmount­able.

The past also stalks them. Images of the atrocities they have endured — bombings, torture, imprisonme­nt — cycle through their thoughts.

“They come here. It is grey and rainy. They think, what did I leave behind? Will I ever see my country again?” says Zazai.

A refugee from Afghanista­n, Zazai arrived in 1999, learned English and graduated with a master’s degree from Coventry University. But he remembers the lonely journey from stranger to citizen and has personally hosted the Syrians for dinner. So has the Bishop of Coventry, who invited more than 70 to his home, opening his garden for the children to play cricket and eat ice cream cones.

Ferik Segeraj, who ran a successful business in Damascus, loves his new city, with its red brick buildings and multicultu­ral vibe. He felt an instant kinship with Zazai and with case worker Mustapha Keer. “He is my brother,” says the 52-year-old, smiling at Keer.

Forced to flee Damascus in 2011, Segeraj, his wife and two daughters languished for three years in Jordan as United Nations refugees, before the U.K. admitted them. While Segeraj feels fortunate, his new life often confounds him. “Here, society is very orderly and the refugee system bureaucrat­ic. You need an appointmen­t for everything.”

Keer nods: “We support refugees, but we also push them. We encourage them not to be passive and to start a new life. You cannot bring back what was lost.”

Segeraj is receiving medical care for eye problems and hepatitis B. His two teenage daughters, in skinny jeans and bright head scarves, are healthy and adjusting well. With iPhones, shiny smiles and good English, he knows they are the future.

“We forget what refugees give back,” Zazai says. “We give them citizenshi­p and they give us their loyalty.”

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