REFUGEES from war-torn Syria say the spirit of community in Warwickshire is helping them rebuild their lives.
Warwickshire County Council granted 25 families sanctuary more than a year ago as part of government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme. They are split across Stratford, Leamington, Rugby and Nuneaton.
The families who moved to Warwickshire are among those who have suffered the most following the humanitarian disaster in Syria since civil war erupted in 2011. Many had their homes and livelihoods destroyed in the conflicts that have ravaged the country they once called home.
And those who relocated spoke about their experiences at a special celebration day at the council offices Shire Hall in Warwick.
One of those was 34-year-old Thana Mohammad who moved to Leamington with three-year-old son Ali after living in Syrian refugee camps.
Thana now volunteers at the Sydni Centre and hopes to teach one day. Her son is at nursery.
She said: “Before I came here I lived in camps for five years which was really hard, there was no water and no work.
“I love my home in Leamington, I just miss our family in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. I would return to Syria if the fighting stops but I can’t see that happening. Lots of people have died and lots of houses have also gone.”
The families have all been studying English since their arrival in the UK.
And some have excelled so much in their studies they have even been able to secure jobs.
One of those is 20-year-old Sawsan Altahan who lives in Stratford with her two sisters and her parents. She works at a local supermarket and also is studying at Warwickshire College.
She said: “In Syria my mum and sister worked for 11 hours a day and I looked after dad who is disabled. We had a kind of life but it wasn’t safe, it was hard for us.
“I like Stratford people, they have volunteered with transport and translations and anything else which helps us. It’s very nice here and I feel very safe.”
The family previously lived in Damascus before fleeing to Cairo where they were chosen as part of the relocation programme due to Sawsan’s disabled father’s medical needs.
Her mum Lila said: “The UK is very quiet and the people here are respectful. They make me feel I am home.
“The only suffering is that we left some of our family and we hope they can come to the UK one day. My daughter is still in Cairo and it makes my heart hurt.”
The family is also supported by ‘befriender’ Patricia Lee, who is one of many volunteers who helps by running errands, giving advice and introducing the refugees into the community.
Each family has a ‘befriender’, but some of Patricia’s specific tasks include helping with hospital appointments and looking after the children while parents attend English lessons.
She has even found the children their own bikes and said the children referred to her as their ‘English granny’.
She said: “For years we have seen the Syrian situation unfold and you just wish you could do something about it and now we can.
“That’s what gives me real joy to be able to help this family who have fled their country.
“They’re so grateful to have education and a roof over their heads, after spending years in a camp in the dust and dirt and 40 degree heat.
“They feel very lucky they were chosen for the programme but feel for their brothers and sisters still living in camps and often need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes I’m just here to give them a very big hug.”
Naela Hamza who relocated to Rugby also has a befriender.
She admitted finding it difficult arriving in the UK, but now sees the country as home.
The 30-year-old had fled Syria with her family and moved to Lebanon where she had a daughter, but after her husband died his parents tried to take the child from her.
After seeking advice from the United Nations (UN) she was placed on the relocation scheme.
She said: “The UN asked if I would travel. I needed to get away from my husband’s family who wanted to take my daughter and I immediately said yes.
“After arriving in Britain I found it difficult to leave the house and deal with people but I felt safe. I don’t know how to thank those who helped me. Now I love it here.”
By 2020 six more families are expected to be settled across the county in private housing.
The move to welcome more, and the work carried out so far, has been applauded by council leader Izzi Seccombe.
She said: “The fact the whole county has come together to provide a safe place for these Syrian families to begin to heal and rebuild lives shattered by conflict is a testament to what a fantastic place Warwickshire is to live.
“I am immensely proud that the council and all our partners have pulled together to provide a comprehensive package of support to these families and that local communities have gone above and beyond to make our newest residents so welcome. These families have been given the opportunity to begin their healing in a county that has always celebrated and welcomed diversity and a county that has always offered help to its most vulnerable residents.”