A year ago, when we were choosing a logo for our grassroots initiative “Ahlan Wa Sahlan- welcome,” we thought of including a key in the design as we would be offering English lessons and social activities to help refugees. We thought learning to speak English in a friendly atmosphere is a key for establishing a new life in London. Throughout an active year of teaching, learning, friendship and community events, we become truly touched and inspired by the goodwill in our communities and the great example of compassion and shared humanity; a key component of successful integration and a story worth sharing.
As a Syrian refugee myself, and together with a brilliant group of friends, we set up the community group to welcome refugees to London. We genuinely wanted to help and many of us have experienced first-hand what it means to resettle in London with all challenges and the opportunities. Also, both Syria and the UK have a great tradition of welcoming refugees and we wanted to continue this noble practice. We started contacting local communities and organisations, and many of them were eager to help. St Mary’s Church and Christ the Saviour Church gave me their keys and generously offered us their venues to run our free English conversation lessons. I was deeply touched by their goodwill and compassion. A key moment for me!
We are all volunteer English speakers trying to help the group members to practice their English, chat about life here, and give advice about simple daily issues such as shopping or registering with a doctor. All volunteers dedicate their time to make a difference by offering their skills and knowledge to the new arrivals. Simultaneously, volunteers enjoy the opportunity to learn about other cultures and languages. Ahlan Wa Sahlan cofounder Louisa explained that she “loved making friends, learning about the Arabic music listened to whilst drinking coffee in the morning in Syria.”
Welcomed with a genuine smile and encouragement, our group members, many of whom are war survivors, enjoy learning, socialising and making new friends in London. They have shown incredible resilience and determination to succeed. One member said: “I joined Ahlan Wa Sahlan to learn and practice my English. It’s also helped me meet new friends and take part in social activities including playing football. I do not feel alone in my new life in this country!” Another member joined the group to improve his English as he was applying to study at university. Now, we are very proud he is following his dreams at university.
Our Ahlan Wa Sahlan has achieved something very special in bringing our London communities together. We celebrated many birthdays of our group members, Ramadan, Christmas, and Mawleed (the birthday of Prophet Mohammad). It is amazing to see people from all faiths and backgrounds, come together to show care, empathy and love regardless of our differences. It is also encouraging and empowering to remember that Jesus and Prophet Mohammad were refugees.
We also received many invitations to activities, festivals and celebrations in our multicultural metropolitan city, including the Japanese annual festival Matsuri where Syrian families with children attended and enjoyed a day of Japanese culture, music and food.
It has been a wonderful year of friendship, togetherness and cross-cultural communication. These are essentials to correct the many misconceptions surrounding refugees. For example, a friend of mine watched a short introductory video about “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” and she commented “these people do not look like refugees!” When I asked her how refugees are ‘supposed to look’ she immediately replied that she was sorry and it was all because of the way the news we see on TV portrays refugees.
After a Professional Women’s Development Workshop, a volunteer said “I really enjoyed the evening but I have to admit this isn’t what I’d expected women refugees are like.” Another Ahlan Wa Sahlan volunteer, Anisa Goshi wrote after a workshop: “What do an embryologist and public health doctor, two architects, an artist, a businesswoman, a reporter and a researcher have in common? They are all strong, intelligent, formidable Syrian refugee women in London! I had the honour to be invited, welcomed and accepted among them”. Even though these success stories are rarely portrayed in mainstream media which is busy reporting ‘big events’ and numbers, Ahlan Wa Sahlan has been featured in many articles, and even the Daily Mail published a positive article about our group.
Throughout this year, we have been touched with people’s kindness, love and care. We have also been inspired by refugees’ defiance, dignity and strength in the face of challenges and tragedy. We have witnessed the essence of human nature of compassion and the beauty of building trust and personal connections among people from various backgrounds. We also learnt that integration is a two-way process. As the volunteer Sana Ibrahim explained: “Reflecting back on the year, as an Ahlan Wa Sahlan volunteer, I feel truly fortunate to be part of something that brings so much positivity to all involved. Our classes have become about so much more than English and integration for refugees. There’s a mutual sentiment in which we are all affecting each other’s lives, for the better”.
I do believe we should not be trapped watching tragedies unfold in the news like paralysed witnesses. We can all reach out to alleviate the suffering and make a difference with our skills and abilities. And we can start within our local communities.
My most memorable event of the year is participating in the National Refugees Welcome Summit organised by Citizens UK in Birmingham. I co-chaired the summit and it was incredible to see over 500 people from all over the UK coming together to share their success stories and challenges, and enthusiastically plan together to continue the tradition of welcoming refugees. At the end of the summit, I experienced something beyond happiness when I saw the participants chanting in Arabic: “Let’s all get together, British people and Syrian people, we are all one in humanity.”