Syrian refugees on UK life: friendly but confusing … and oh so cold

Families saved from danger are giving back to the land that brought them in

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When Niran Al Tahan first visited the UK she was a carefree tourist on a trip to spend time with her sister who was living there.

But when she returned five years ago it was as a refugee relieved to find a haven from war.

"We registered with the UNHCR as soon as we left Damascus for Jordan, and three and a half years later we got the call," Ms Al Tahan tells The National.

She and her mother were among an initial group of 35 families given places to live in Oxford, England under the UK’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

The programme was set up in September 2015 with a commitment to relocate 20,000 Syrian refugees to the UK over five years. Most are stuck in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and live in camps or informal housing. Many rely on aid from charities, like the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration. Sometimes they are lucky enough to be offered an entirely new life elsewhere through relocation programmes.

Niran Al Tahan and her mother were relocated to Oxford from Amman in April 2016 through the VPRS. Photo courtesy Niran Al Tahan.   

The 20,000th Syrian refugee is due to arrive in the UK this month, about the same time as the Syrian civil war enters its 10th year.

The country has been in the grip of a conflict that has cost more than 350,000 lives, displaced more than six million people and created a further six million refugees.

Thanks to her English skills and outgoing personality, Ms Al Tahan was soon helping other Syrian families by volunteering with Connection Support, the charity that helped her settle in Oxford. She knows how disorientating the refugee experience can be.

I wish I could live this life in our country…to have systems, laws and justice that make you feel valued and respected. Now I know that it is my human right to enjoy freedom."

“At the beginning people did not understand what was going on," Ms Al Tahan says. "Everything is chaotic and backwards in Syria and then you arrive [here] and everything here is about queuing and correspondence and a bureaucracy we are not used to.

"Some even said they wanted to go home when they became so confused. But with time, things changed, and I think they really recognised the difference when they saw how their children were thriving.”

Ms Al Tahan tells The National she could never see herself going back to Syria, despite her enduring love for the country.

“I wish I could live this life in our country; to have systems, laws and justice that make you feel valued and respected. Now I know that it is my human right to enjoy freedom,” she says.

Some of those thriving children include her own nieces and nephews, who were resettled with their parents in Oxford shortly after Ms Al Tahan arrived. One of her nieces recently graduated from Oxford Brookes University. Another is retraining to be a pharmacist and the youngest in the family is taking her high school exams this year.

Community support is crucial 

Having escaped danger, many Syrians in the UK are contributing to Britain's emergency response to Covid-19.

Khaled Ali has been working in a hospital, cleaning and feeding patients, since the start of the pandemic. He marvels at what fate had in store for his family.

“Just as I gave up hope, we got the call to say we had been accepted,” says Mr Ali, who was told in early 2018 that he was moving to Wales. The last time he was in Syria was in 2012 to attend the funeral of his nephew who was shot by a sniper in Raqqa.

Within six months of the call, his wife and four children were relocated to the town of Penarth. “I’ve been happy here since the day I arrived. When my children arrived they asked me: ‘Daddy, are we in a cartoon?’”

Mr Ali hopes to buy a house one day. “When the UNHCR told me I might not go back for a few years, I told them: ‘I’ll never go back.’ As far as I’m concerned my life is here,” he says.

Khaled Ali were accepted for resettlement and moved to Wales with his wife and four children in September 2018 from Lebanon. Courtesy Khaled Ali. 

Mr Ali says the community support his family received was and continues to be immense. “They are always so helpful and accommodating, checking in on us, making sure we are OK. The people are really amazing here. They even took us to the mosque and went in with us to celebrate when it was Eid.”

The nicest thing is the safety, the democracy and the children's education." Basma Al Hussein.

It has been a similarly positive experience for the Al Hussein family, whose four children “quickly acclimatised” to their new home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The family had been living in a basement in south Lebanon after fleeing the city of Homs when Mr Al Hussein was shot in the leg.

They were also registered with the UNHCR but as they waited, Mr Al Hussein admitted he cried every time someone they knew travelled, and he prayed their turn would be next. They didn’t hesitate when the call finally came.

“The nicest thing is the safety, the democracy and the children’s education,” Ms Al Hussein says, but she admits that getting used to the cold was, and still is, a struggle for them.

“We arrived in the summer with no winter clothes and it was wet and cold. My husband thought we arrived in the land of the Eskimos!” she laughs.

It is almost two years since they made their new home in Scotland’s capital. The couple say they have lovely neighbours and are grateful to be safe.

Three of the Al Hussein's four children play in the snow in Edinburgh, their home of the last two years, thanks to the VPRS. Courtesy Al Hussein family.     

“Everyone has been wonderful. The community support group helped us with everything and were so kind,” says Ms Al Hussein, who happily considers Scotland her second home.

None of the family have passports and when they become eligible to apply for citizenship Mr Al Hussein said the costs involved – often several thousand pounds – will be too high.

Refugee Sponsorship Edinburgh helped the family navigate the day-to-day bureaucracy required to set up a new life.

“The success of the scheme has demonstrated to communities across Scotland – and the rest of the UK – the life-changing potential of refugee resettlement,” says Wafa Shaheen, head of Asylum and Integration at the Scottish Refugee Council.

Promising but unclear: the outlook for refugees in the UK

Resettlements happen in two ways: through local authorities or Community Sponsorship Programmes in which community groups welcome, support and settle refugee families.

In June 2019, the UK’s Home Office announced a consolidated UK Resettlement Scheme, pledging to take in 5,000 global refugees a year. It was meant to come into effect in April last year.

The preceding Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme was suspended at the height of the pandemic between March and December but is set to meet its 20,000 quota within weeks. When it does, the UK Resettlement Scheme is expected to begin.

We need commitment to sustainable long-term resettlement programmes and safe, legal routes for people to rebuild their lives in the UK." Wafa Shaheen.

Details on the new programme remain vague, and this has left some local authorities and others involved in a position where they risk having to reduce services.

“With the climate crisis mounting and combining with other displacement factors across the world, we need commitment to sustainable long-term resettlement programmes and safe, legal routes for people to rebuild their lives in the UK,” Ms Shaheen says.

Abdu and his nephew Mohammed Hassida were stuck in a makeshift camp in Greece for months before being accepted for resettlement in Ireland. Courtesy Abdu Hassida

Abdu Hassida had just turned 18 when he left Syria with his 12-year-old nephew to make the perilous journey to Europe. After reaching Greece on an inflatable boat, they were unable to cross the North Macedonian border and found themselves stuck for months in a makeshift tent in Idomeni, northern Greece.

What Mr Hassida thought would be a 15-day voyage to freedom turned into a traumatic 19-month ordeal, which luckily ended in a beautiful coastal town in Ireland.

“I had never even heard of Ireland before the IOM contacted me and said we would be relocated there,” Mr Hassida says. “But as soon as I arrived, I loved it.”

Mr Hassida and his nephew spent three months in the Clonea Emergency Reception & Orientation Centre in County Waterford on the south coast of Ireland, where all new arrivals are welcomed before being permanently housed elsewhere.

'I would just like to sit for one whole day in my living room with my mother and father and sisters and brother and talk, and talk and talk.' Abdu Hassida

He felt so at home that he did not want to leave and took a job working at the centre, helping other arrivals settle into their new lives.

“I’ve gone all around Ireland meeting people but Dungarvan is my favourite,” he tells The National. The small coastal town is popular with tourists and has plenty of amenities.

Because Mr Hassida’s nephew was a minor, he was able to apply for reunification with his parents and siblings who now live with him in Clonea. Mr Hassida wishes he could do the same for his own parents, but his chances are slim.

“I would just like to sit for one whole day in my living room with my mother and father and sisters and brother, and talk, and talk, and talk,’ he says.

Ireland committed to taking in 4,000 refugees over four years in Phase 1 of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. The country pledged to welcome a further 2,900 refugees between 2020 and 2023.

Calls for greater clarity on UK long-term resettlement plans

Back in the UK, Reset – an organisation that works with Community Sponsorship groups all over the UK – is calling for more support.

“We know that communities are keen to welcome refugees regardless of where they come from ... but we still need more details about a longer-term commitment to resettlement. The need for people to find safety in the UK has not diminished so we need to be clear on longer term goals,” says Dr Kate Brown, co-director of Reset.

 UK refugees: five facts

  • The UK has taken in nearly 20,000 Syrian refugees over 5 years
  • An additional 3000 vulnerable Syrian children have been resettled in the UK
  • The current scheme, the VPRS, will end in March 2021
  • The new scheme, the UKRS, will apply to refugees from all nationalities
  • Community Sponsorships are another avenue for refugees to come to the country