‘But I think tackling prejudices is as important as offering shelter.”
Simpson said she planned to encourage the Syrian women to have a coffee with their female neighbours‘.
Small community of Narberth may not be most obvious place to resettle a traumatised family but locals have worked hard for a year to make it happen
Legakis/Athena Pictures for the Guardian
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
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Friday 21 July 2017 13.04 BST
Last modified on Friday 21 July 2017 22.00 BST
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 last week, 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.”
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Hughes got in touch with the organisation Hiraeth Hope (hiraeth is a Welsh word meaning a deep yearning for one’s homeland), 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.
Christine Hughes (left) and Jill Simpson.
Christine Hughes (left) who first got in touch with Hiraeth Hope, and Jill Simpson, a member of the Croeso Arberth. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Pictures for the Guardian
Groups wishing to welcome families must provide a detailed plan explaining 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 bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
And it is not cheap. Resettled families are eligible for state benefits but groups must raise at least £4,500 per adult as a “deposit” to be used in an emergency and find money on top of this for expenses ranging from interpreting services to furniture and household basics.
Croeso Arberth has 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 this spring, 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.
Each resettled family is different but all suffered the loss of their home. Many will also be grieving loved ones and have witnessed the horrors of war. Some may have specific medical needs or disabilities. Not all will be happy to come to the UK and groups are warned not to necessarily expect a joyful ending – or even gratitude.
It all happened quickly in the end. A seven-strong family – including teenagers and adults – was matched with the Narberth group and they had 10 days to get their house ready. Narberth is an interesting, quirky, warm town. Artists, dreamers and hippies have long escaped the rat race to this corner of Pembrokeshire. The Welsh lyric “We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides” resonates here.
Forty-eight hours before the Syrian family was due to arrive, Hughes and Simpson were making last-minute preparations. The house had been cleaned and repainted, the garden cleared. Bedding was being sorted and items – including hot water bottles – purchased. A neighbour’s daughter bustled in and out running errands. The Guardian’s photographer was roped in to help set up the donated television.
There were practical snags – there were only six chairs for the kitchen table – and there were worries. For starters, 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.
Inevitably, not all Narberth people were thrilled. Some even expressed concerns that the family could be terrorists.
Christine Hughes helps prepare a double bed before the family arrives.
Christine Hughes helps prepare a double bed before the family arrives. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Pictures for the Guardian
“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.”
Simpson said she planned to encourage the Syrian women to have a coffee with their female neighbours. Hughes added: “I’m going to teach the men to do a British wave and nod. That will help, I think.”
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. She fretted over whether it was acceptable to write a man’s name on a pink balloon.
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 exactly 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 used sign language to show he wanted a group photograph to remember the moment. An older man walked out of the airport terminal arm-in-arm with another interpreter, Paul Bruins.
“It’s was a privilege to be part of that moment,” said Cox. “You’re seeing seven people’s lives change fundamentally. Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the scale of the Syrian crisis. What community sponsorship does is provide people with a chance to make a difference.
“You could see the smiles, the laughter. 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.”
Citizens UK is supporting dozens of other groups across the country working towards welcoming their own families.
Cox was also impressed by the trust the family seemed to put in strangers. “I imagine trust is a rare commodity in a refugee camp. They are trusting that they will be provided with a home. They are in their hands. If I was in their situation I think I’d be wary.”
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, whose sleepless nights launched the project. “I get the feeling they knew they are wanted, which they are. How satisfying is that?”
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