After years of struggle, forty refugee families are finding a safe home in Devon. Bruce Hetherington finds out more, and about those helping to provide a warm welcome.
Our motto here at One Magazine is always to be ‘polite not political’ and as a rule we steer clear of anything remotely contentious. However, we were moved recently by one woman’s story of how her family’s life in Syria was destroyed by civil war, and how they have found safety here in Devon after years of living in limbo in refugee camps in Lebanon.
It was a devastating tale of how a normal family can have everything they’ve worked for destroyed overnight. The scale of personal loss including the loss of close family members in the bombing and violence is something so far removed from most of our experience, and yet somehow these families have to try and rebuild.
In 2014 the government introduced the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) which undertook the housing of 20,000 Syrian families in the UK. The government subsequently pledged to take on a further 3,000 vulnerable children and their families under the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme (VCRS). Devon took on the task of housing over 40 families and there are a number of local organisations working with Devon County Council and other local councils to make the arrival and settling in process as easy as possible.
Prominent among these is Refugee Support Devon (RSD), an independent Exeter-based charity set up in 2001 by volunteers concerned about the wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers in Devon. RSD began working alongside Devon County Council in 2016 and now provides support for over twenty families relocated to Devon as a result of the war in Syria. In 2018 alone RSD helped to welcome 12 new families, 11 from Syria and 1 from Sudan,. and another family arrived earlier this month.
RSD’s work with VPRS and VCRS families begins before they arrive, getting accommodation ready and organising vital appointments with doctors, social services and schools. RSD staff and volunteers meet new arrivals at the airport and provide intensive support with everything from translating water bills to making sure the family knows their local bus route, so newcomers settle quickly and comfortably. RSD continues to provide support for up to five years, after which families are expected to live as fully integrated, independent members of their local communities. RSD is delighted to say that members of many of the families have already found employment or training and several of them have become very active in their local communities as volunteers.
Alongside this work RSD offers a twice weekly drop-in at its Exeter office where refugees and asylum-seekers can receive assistance from staff and volunteers. Last year four members of RSD received their Level 1 accreditation from the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC). The OISC is sponsored by the Home Office and makes sure advisers in immigration are ‘fit and competent and act in the best interest of their clients’. One of the four, Neli Montes De Oca, RSD’s casework coordinator, says the accreditation means RSD can offer immigration advice clinics every Thursday between 12:30 and 14:30 in the Exeter Community Centre. These clinics are in addition to the regular drop-in service currently offered.
“The advice clinics get in to the specifics; completing certificates for travel to clients granted humanitarian protection or discretionary leave; making applications to vary conditions for people without recourse to public funds; assisting with applications for leave to remain and with the ten-year route for indefinite leave to remain; and registration of a child as a British Citizen,” Neli says. RSD is extremely proud to be the only organisation in the south-west of England currently offering this service for free.
Others providing support to VPRS and VCRS families include the Olive Tree (who provide ESOL English language classes) Hikmat, Multilingua and other agencies such as Jobcentre Plus have provided regular support to Devon’s refugee community in areas such as education, health and well-being, and employment.
Exeter Mosque, The Riverside Centre, Rediscover Church, Exeter’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and local support groups such as Ottery Refugee Response and Newton Crisis Aid continue to donate much needed household items, groceries, toys and more to prepare the houses before each family arrives.
The story that caught our eye here at One Magazine was Walaa’s Story. You can find it here: http://refugeesupportdevon.org.uk/blog/
It is harrowing but extremely uplifting and probably best summed up in her own words, which certainly paint a picture of Devonian hospitality at its finest:
“I was surprised to see that people in Britain are always smiling. It makes me happy to be here. I am pleased to say that I have experienced no racism or prejudice here. I am very happy with the way people see me at school. And I really appreciate the way my own children are treated equally at school.
I am very happy with my new life in Britain. But the most important thing of all is… my children are safe here.”
– Walaa’s Story, as reported by Refugee Support Devon.
For more detail on Refugee Support Devon or if you would like to help please call 01392 682185, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.refugeesupportdevon.org.uk