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November 14, 2018

These volunteers have helped save thousands of refugees

Since the migrant crisis of 2015, refugee resettlement has been the subject of intense and sometimes difficult debate.

Global outrage over the photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish toddler who drowned when his family attempted the crossing from Turkey to Greece, prompted many world leaders to commit to providing sanctuary for those displaced from conflict.

Focus began to shift away from the provision of aid to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, and towards practical measures to help resettle refugees in Europe.

In Britain, this came in the form of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Announced by former prime minister David Cameron, the scheme was a response to major displays of civic activism including the 2015 “Refugees Welcome” march in London, which drew a crowd of many tens of thousands.

 

But after the tragic terror attacks in Paris that autumn, there was a change in the discourse; with new arrivals facing greater scrutiny in the media.

Despite the challenges this change of mood has wrought, humanitarian movements have continued to quietly work to establish resettlement infrastructure throughout the UK.

After the formation of the council-led resettlement scheme, in 2016, a second initiative opened – the community sponsorship scheme. Refugees were drawn from the same pool of vulnerable people, but the resettlement was to be handled entirely by a community group, with the permission of the local authority.

Although take up was initially slow – word began to spread, and eventually a dedicated network of volunteers was established to raise awareness and lead advocacy efforts.

For Nour, and other members of the volunteer network, the scheme was the chance they’d been waiting for: “we were just desperate to do something, and we couldn’t,” she says.

Nour came to the UK from Syria in 2011 to study human rights. That same year, the Arab spring protests in Syria transfigured into what would become a bloody and protracted seven-year conflict, with her own family remaining trapped: “I would go days, weeks without hearing from them,” she says.

But the scheme provided Nour with a mechanism to act positively. First, by connecting with charity Citizens UK, and then by working with like-minded people to form Refugees Welcome Milton Keynes, and lobbying the council to participate: “We didn’t have experience, we were only a group of seven people and I was the youngest,” she remarks.

The council were receptive, but the volunteers had to work hard to find willing landlords and prepare the homes for the new arrivals: “I finished work at five, was at the house painting and putting bunkbeds together and then they told us the first two families are coming,” she recalls.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. No sooner had they registered the families with GPs, schools, and helped them settle into their homes, but the council agreed to bring 50 more people. So far, the council has committed to resettling 150 people, of which roughly 90 (15 families) have arrived.

Tim Finch, the founding director of Sponsor Refugees, Citizens UK’s community sponsorship arm, believes this kind of voluntary activism is essential to successful resettlement:

“Councils can provide conscientious workers, but you can’t hire friends. If you arrive as a refugee here, you know the people around you have raised the money, found a house, because they really want to,” he says. He continues, “They probably spent six months to a year working, giving up hours each week, before the family even arrived.”

According to Finch, the volunteers themselves are very different from the well-meaning-but-hopeless stereotype. “Often, you’ll find CEOs of charities, doctors, lawyers, specialists in mental health, and trauma,” he says, “go in and patronise a sponsorship group at your peril.”

Nour says the refugees in Milton Keynes are integrating well, with the early arrivals now helping to prepare for later ones. “Our families in Milton Keynes, they recognise there is a cultural difference, they are not trying to force their traditions on their surroundings,” she says.

For her, a crucial obstacle is the language barrier, and the isolation this can bring. Local involvement has again proved crucial in addressing this: “So many nice volunteers offered to teach them English or be their buddy family.”

The scheme is currently set for completion in 2020, but motivated volunteers like Nour would like to see it continue pass that date.

According to Citizens UK, which is leading on the campaign for the extension, almost all councils in Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire and the Humber have participated, but just 45 per cent in the East of England, with similar figures for the North East, South East and East Midlands. By contrast, there are clusters of community sponsorship groups in the South West and Devon, south west Wales, and London, but less in Scotland and Yorkshire

These stats are encouraging, and the need for resettlement certainly still exists; with 65 million displaced people worldwide, and the war in Syria still ongoing.

“There is not one day that doesn’t go past when I don’t feel guilty,” Nour says, “I know the situation is a bit better in Damascus but not a single day goes by without me feeling, first of all, I am not doing enough, and secondly, it is not fair that I have a normal life and they don’t.”

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