A Key Story of Compassion

 

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.

Ahlan Wa Sahlan Logo

 

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.”

https://twitter.com/Syrian_AWS/status/775066325848825856

 

 

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How to Identify the Assad Propaganda Conference: An Open Letter to Lord Rowan Williams

Dear Lord Rowan Williams

I have great respect for you and for your ethical stand with the refugee as you boldly stated “The UK must not turn a blind eye to refugees”. I am writing again regarding the EuroCSE conference on Syria, hoping to see an equally strong position against a conference aiming to whitewash the brutal regime’s crimes against us Syrians.

I highly appreciate that you are motivated to join the conference by a sincere hope for a just and sustainable peace. We all want an ethical and durable solution. Given that you stated in your reply that you have “have as yet seen no clear evidence that the event is designed simply as a propagandist exercise,” I am writing to give few examples. I am making this an open letter because I am worried many well-intentioned people might not see the clear evidence in this propaganda exercise.

Image by Lens Young Homsi of the regime shelling of al-Qossour neighborhood in Homs, Syria.

First of all, the conference will be mainly hosting several individuals who are members or supporters of this regime, including ministers of the Assad’s regime which is a very obvious attempt to give them legitimacy that they do not have and do not deserve, in addition to an Iranian ambassador.

Moreover, the event descriptions include misleading accounts about Syria. It completely ignores the peaceful protests against the dictator regime, which was met with extreme brutality from the regime that used all types of weapons, siege, indiscriminate bombardment, and chemical weapons to silent the revolution at any cost. The event page uses the exact same narrative Assad uses to dismiss our rights and demands for freedom and democracy. It states “Before 2011, the sovereign, secular state of Syria was a relatively prosperous country, where health and education was free to all and the population attained a high level of literacy.” A complete divorce from reality, and a disregard to all Syrians who rightfully took to the street in 2011 when the Assad’ oppression reach an intolerable level that people risked their lives to courageously demand change.

These descriptions contradict the reality of the ‘Kingdom of Silence’ the Assad the farther created since his military coup in 1970 and Assad the son continued since inheriting Syria in 2000. We Syrians know of the corruption, atrocities and torture committed by the Assad regime. Simply, to describe pre-revolution Syria with “growth and prosperity” is outrageous lying and whitewashing of Assads’ crimes. Even this morning, as I write this letter, Syrians woke up on a chemical weapons attack in Idlip that killed at least 58 people

Furthermore, it is extremely ironical that the founding director of the European Centre for the Study of extremism, Makram Khoury-Machool hold extremely extreme views on Syria and world politics. For example, in a farcical speech at the House of Lords he gives his analysis for over 10 minutes without mentioning what the Syrian people role is, or what they want, nor did he mention the Assad regime atrocities. For him, it is all an international conspiracy against the state. This is unacceptable views that ignore millions of Syrians and see them lacking voice or agency to demand their human rights and dignity.

Similarly, another speaker Dr Marcus Papadopoulos has tweeted that he is proud to be speaking at this conference including a link to a previous interview where he shamelessly claim the only ‘legitimate powers’ fighting in Syria now is Assad and Russia while in reality Assad and Russia are responsible for the majority of the Syrian causalities.

These speakers have the audacity to make outrageous conspiracy arguments irrespective of the facts on the ground in Syria and with no regard to suffering of Syrian civilians. They don’t mention the Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians, its use of rape and starvation as weapon of war, and its turning of hospitals and prisons to slaughterhouses. The regime sponsored extremism and brought foreign fighters into the country. While it arrested most of the peaceful protestors and political activists, it freed the extremist prisoners who went on to form extreme groups in Syria.

I have previous written that the best way to help stop the war is Syria is to be informed about Syria, to listen to Syrians, to stand in solidarity with Syrians, and to demand an effective political solution and protection of civilians. As the great campaigner of protection of civilians the late Jo cox put it: “I have long argued that Isis and Assad are not separate problems to be chosen between, but are action and reaction, cause and symptom, chicken and egg, impossible to untangle no matter how much we might like to. The brutality of Assad (who has killed seven times the number of civilians as Isis) has helped nurture Isis and been its main recruiting sergeant. As such they can only be addressed together, as part of a coherent strategy.”

I sincerely hope you won’t turn a blind eye to the plea of Syrians asking you not to give your name and credibility to support such a propaganda conference. However, if you decide to still go ahead with it, I hope you will raise points the other speakers won’t mention: mainly the legitimate rights and roles of Syrians, the protection of civilians, and the atrocities of the regime. All in all, civilian protection is a catch all phrase with little meaning unless expanded to include stopping the aerial bombardments, lifting the starvation sieges and releasing the detainees. I hope you will challenge false justifications such as anti-western conspiracy theories. Finally, you could direct them toward more reliable sources of information by Syrians such as great books documenting the Syrian struggle for freedom and democracy ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War,’ ‘A woman in the crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution’ and ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline’.

Yours sincerely

Fardous Bahbouh

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Who is a refugee?

Through her work as a campaigner and community volunteer, Fardous Bahbouh considers how she is taking back ownership of her refugee label.

-This article first appeared in the “Beyond Borders” magazine, by the Refugee Journalism Project at London College of Communication @refugeejourno

Browsing the library shelves while waiting for an event at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a book in the Syria section caught my attention: What is a refugee? The titled surprised me as I was taught in English to use who for people and what for things. Despite my initial irritation and resentment, I picked up the book and starting skimming through, wondering to myself what a scholar sitting at his desk in a safe office somewhere could possibly know about the plight of refugees. Reluctantly, I decided to read the book. At least I could use it to challenge the narrative.

Contrary to my preconceptions, Professor William Maley’s book offers a brilliant contextualized, comprehensive and humane insight into the refugee experience. He outlines the historic background – as forced migration is not a new phenomenon and it could happen to anybody. Then he talks about various definitions and some of the work done to help refugees, with examples from different countries. The most important aspect is the inclusion of the personal stories of individual refugees, proving that everyone has a unique experience and a personal story – something that is sometimes lost in reporting when refugees are often presented as nameless numbers.

I personally never like it when journalists use the expression the refugee crisis. For me, refugees are not a crisis. As Professor Maley articulates, refugees are products of failing systems: “When a particular state fails to protect its own people, they may look for protection to other parts of the system of states. Refugees are symptoms of a system of states that has failed properly to live up to its responsibilities.” Thus, society can’t blame the victims!

Refugees leave their homes, family, friends, businesses and achievements behind and flee for their lives. But reaching safety is only half the challenge. They then have to deal with loosing family ties, having to learn a new language, loosing social recognition gained by work or profession. The actual crisis is states’ failure to protect their own citizens, and other states’ failure to welcome and protect these individuals. To avoid the moral, ethical and legal responsibilities, politicians sometimes claim refugees are economic migrants.

While talking about refugees has become a very popular topic in the European media recently, Professor Maley highlights that in welcoming refugees, poor countries are as generous as rich countries, even more generous sometimes. Furthermore, the lack of safe routes to sanctuary means that, “refugees have been driven by governments into the arms of people smugglers”. This makes them further at risk at abuse, exploitation or slavery.

Professor Maley talks about the diversity of refugees and the different circumstances they go through. He identifies different categories: the acute refugee who finds themselves in desperate situations; the anticipatory refugee who is already outside their country when they realize they can no longer return; and the refugee sur place, by the virtue of being well off. My personal experience makes me both anticipatory and sur place.

In a discussion with a friend about helping refugees, when I told her: “I am a refugee myself,” she replied: “All my family are ‘actual refugees’ who fled their homes in one night leaving everything behind.” For her, I didn’t fit her definition of a refugee because I didn’t go through such dire circumstances. I came to the UK for a self-funded Master’s programme, or as I sometimes jokingly describe it: A daddy scholarship! My parents supported me to come to study here, and prior to the UK, they also supported me when I went to the USA for my undergraduate studies in political science. They have big hopes for me. My father used to tell me that one day I would become the Syrian Iron Lady or Benazir Bhutto. But he definitely did not wish for me to get assassinated, and because of my activism against the brutal Assad regime, I can’t return home. It is really difficult to be cut away from one’s own roots.

I go through a mix of grief and denial that I am stuck away from home while the country is burning. However, I am starting to come to terms with my new situation. Being a refugee now feels like part of my identity: a refugee welcomed and protected in another country. I want to give back and help other refugees reach safety, so I volunteer alongside many amazing people devoting their times and effort to make a difference. Through this painful journey and the volunteer work, I have found my real identity and a sense of belonging.

With my friends, I have started a community group to welcome refugees to London. We have called our grassroots initiative Ahlan Wa Sahlan – Arabic for welcome. We run English classes and social activities in a safe and comfortable environment.

AWS 9Celebrating the first anniversary of Ahlan Wa Sahlan work welcoming refugees and bringing our communities together @Syrian_AWS

I also volunteer with Citizens UK and the Refugees Welcome campaign. I see how ordinary people can come together to improve lives. Safe Passage, a project of Citizens UK, works to find legal routes to sanctuary for people fleeing persecution. I have experienced incredible happiness from helping child refugees reach safety and being reunited with their family members in the UK. Since Safe Passage started, 1,050 child refugees have arrived here safely. Through my work I have experienced extraordinary support from the UK public. For me, it symbolizes real hope and thought for humanity. It also represents glimpses of light during the dark times.

So a simple answer to the question Who is a refugee?  My response is that refugees are highly determined and resilient people who learn how to survive wars and establish new lives. All in all, for refugees, fleeing oppression and persecution can be life changing. But it can also inspire people to help and make a difference. Empathy and compassion are what make me feel I belong here. It has helped me to rediscover the value of life and to refuse to be silence or silenced.

As Rabbi Joachim Prinz said of his experience in 1930s Germany: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

When I asked Professor Maley about his choice of the book title “What is a Refugee?”, he explained:

“My objective was raise a particular discursive problem. ‘Who is a refugee?’ indeed makes grammatical sense, but the burden of my argument is in part that no two refugees are the same, that the individuality of each refugee needs to be appreciated. Using ‘What’ instead of ‘Who afforded me the opportunity to look at the disjuncture between ways in which refugees can be legally defined and sociologically categorised, and the individual experiences that make up each refugee’s individual experience”

 

This article was updated to include comment from Professor William Maley

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Fardous Bahbouh’s CV2017

A journalist, teacher, voice-over artist and an Oscar-winner documentary translator with excellent research and writing skills.  She has a solid background in the Liberal Arts and Humanities and takes an interdisciplinary approach to her education.  A UK resident since 2009, her clients have included Al-Jazeera, Channel 4, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, Chatham House, King’s College, the World Bank, the British Museum and various production companies. She has also studied and worked extensively in a variety of roles in Syria, the United States and Turkey.

Fardous is passionate about working in the media and hopes to inform, educate and entertain a broad audience. She wants her work in media to be a platform to celebrate cultures, contribute to building bridges and establish more understanding. She is motivated to give a voice to less represented groups and to hold governments accountable.

Here is my full CV: Fardous Bahbouh CV 2017

 

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Arts Canteen: Stirring the arts, promoting resilience and tolerance

My blog at The New Arab

On a warm London evening, Aser al-Saqqa welcomed the audience to the Rich Mix concert hall in East London, and enthusiastically introduced the Iraqi singer Nadeen al-Khlalidi and “TarabBand“.

The band played a mix of Arabic, Middle Eastern and Western music. In addition to cheerful love songs, Nadeen sang about surviving and sharing stories as a way to cope with “scars of wars and loss”.

Nadeen’s powerful songs reflect her determinations to keep on embracing life, singing and dancing to cope with her grief. Nadeen is a refugee now living in Sweden.

“Let’s talk and be more open,” she told me. “Let’s talk about our happiness and our grief. There are people who do not like to talk about how they feel. They are ashamed of letting their vulnerability show. But I think my vulnerability with your vulnerability becomes power.”

This concert was organized by Arts Canteen, an organisation presenting Arabic arts and culture to UK audiences, supporting independent and emerging artists, challenging stereotypes and enriching cultural diversity and mutual understanding.

 

Please continue reading the blog at The New Arab website

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Everyone an Artist, a Scientist and a Human

– My article published in “197 Piccadilly” Magazine, winter 2016, page 8

For refugees, the most humdrum action can be a trigger. When Syrian journalist Fardous Bahbouh visited the Eco Fun Palace it was the simple act of crochet that brought back the memories.

 

‘That is absolutely incredible!’ exclaimed Sara as she extracted DNA from a strawberry. She looked astonished and amazed as she did the extraction and wondered, ‘Can I touch it?’ For her, the extracted DNA looked ‘A little bit like chewing gum!’ This was one of the activities of the amazing Sunday event of arts and science at the Eco Fun Palace at St James’s Church bringing the community together and celebrating nature and our planet Earth.

The day included a variety of activities such as the Universe Story, science activities, fossils, competitions, drumming, dance, singing, community artwork, bio-media meltdown, crochet and much more. I really enjoyed the day not only because I love science and arts, but also this community event was held at the beautiful St James’s Church which I have visited many times for concerts and the market. I particularly appreciated the event Bethlehem Unwrapped in the heart of London.

The Eco Fun Palace was entertaining, informative and social. I loved tree rubbing and observing the invisible movement of particles in the cloud chamber, in addition to the nice chats I had with people at the event and during the group visit to the Linnean Society. I really enjoying losing myself among these intriguing fascinating activities.

crochet

And when I saw the crochet workshop, I immediately joined to try it. The lady was very kind and she gave me a thread and a hook. But suddenly, this intimate community setting brought so much tears to my eyes. It brought fond childhood memories of my late aunt who taught me how to knit. All I could see in front of me was her smiley face, and feel the immense horror of losing her to cancer.

I prayed for her beautiful soul and for all the brave people fighting cancer and all family members and friends supporting a cancer patient or living with the sacred memory of a loved person who lost their life to cancer. I hope science will make real advancement to find a cure for cancer.

Grief is something that unites us all. For me, it is extremely sad that because of the war I could not go to see my aunt in Syria as she bravely fought cancer. Her memory stays with me, among other scars of war that I try very hard to hide as a I live as a Syrian refugee who has made London my second home. I still struggle to grasp the enormity and horror of tragic war. But having a community here helped me stay resilient and defiant. I had countless encounters with great people who renewed my faith in humanity. We all love peace and want to see an ethical and durable solution to the war so we can go rebuild our country.

‘I learnt that every small act of kindness can make a difference.’

I believe in God and I believe that war will end and justice will prevail. But until then, we all can help and contribute something to alleviate the suffering and bring the world closer to where it should be. With my friends, we started Ahlan Wa Sahlan, meaning welcome in Arabic, a grassroots organisation which aims to help refugees build a new life in the UK. It has been an incredible journey and it is great to witness all the good well in our community. I learnt that every small act of kindness can make a difference. It really touched my heart when I heard that St. James’s Church is also planning weekly sessions to help refugees.

It is heart-warming and empowering when I remember that Jesus was a refugee and prophet Muhamad was a refugee. I do feel I belong here and I am proud to be part of the welcome movement. Empathy and compassion are the core values of our shared humanity.  All in all, the Eco Fun Palace at St James’s was aimed at showing that everyone is an artist, and a scientist. But it also showed that everyone is a human.

197-piccadilly

 

 

 

 

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Lessons from Volunteering with Refugees

Excitement and anticipation were at high levels at the busy St Pancras International station, as Khaled and Mazen (pseudonyms for two Syrian child refugees) went to meet their family members who were waiting outside. There were cheering, hugging, laughter and tears. Their happy reunion also brought tears to my eyes, even though I had only met them that morning in Calais as I was interpreting for them. This was the final stage of a long legal battle lead by Safe Passage – a group of volunteer lawyers, interpreters and refugee charity specialists finding legal routes to asylum – against the Home Office to allow child refugees to be reunited with families in the UK. I was there to witness a great victory of human values and children’s rights.

Those rare precious moments of happiness were the opposite of the horror stories the boys kept telling me about their journey fleeing the war in Syria all the way to Calais, about their months in the Calais jungle, and their desperate attempts to cross to the UK. They kept narrating terrifying stories and pointing from the windows to the long miles of lands they had to walk, the security fences they tried to pass, and the locations where French police attacked the refugees. One of the boys told me: “Tear gas became our daily perfume!”

This made me wonder whether those boys would ever forget the journey and start a ‘normal’ life and whether ordinary people and politicians understand what they have been through.

Before I proceed, let me clarify that this isn’t a catchy news story providing a cool photo of me and the refugees. I am volunteering, not only because I have sincere desire to help, but because I am a refugee myself, like many other volunteers. Here are some main points that deserve being highlighted

Diversity

Volunteering with refugees made me realize how different our experiences and stories are. I used to be an English teacher at a university back home in Syria before I came to the UK for my studies. I was planning to return, but because of the war, I was stuck away from home.

I have never experienced living in a war zone, only through my laptop while reading the news, watching horrifying video footage or spending long hours on Facebook checking my friends’ profiles to make sure they are still alive. I went through denial, panic, intensified prayers and terrifying nightmares. Sometimes, when I forced myself to have a ‘normal’ life, I ended up stuck in the merciless complications of survivor guilt. Luckily, I can still smile and hold on to my optimism and I made London my second home.

Every refugee has their own journey. Every one has personal struggles, losses, hopes, achievements and disappointments. It is frustrating when people use the word refugee as a blank term; we are humans with values, pains, dreams, emotions and passions. We come from various backgrounds, with different levels of education, professional skills and talents.

Resilience

Despite our diversity, resilience is a common characteristic. The inspiring stories of refugees’ determination, defiance and strength in the face of tragedies; this resilient spirit brings meaning and hope. Our resilience also inspires our deep desire to help each other and our host communities. A group of us, Syrian refugees and British Syrians, along with the help of friends of various nationalities, started a community group “Syrian Ahlan Wa Sahlan” to welcome refugees to London.

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Some of Syrian Ahlan Wa Sahlan members and volunteers. Photo by Yasmine Tanres

 

It goes without saying travelling to a foreign country brings a lot of challenges and opportunities. Any person moving to another country has to adapt to new system, experience cultural shock and deal with homesickness. When I first arrived to college campus in the USA, we had an induction week for international students to learn about life in the US and to ease the cultural shock. Refugees do not have the opportunity for such training – and neither do their host communities.

Dignity

Despite all trauma, our dignity is what keeps us going and helps us create meaning in our new lives: we want to be productive and give back to our community.

But the system has failed asylum seekers and refugees. Asylum seekers are usually not allowed to work. Refugees who used to be successful professionals in their countries, such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, carpenters, builders and artists, find themselves left out either because their university degrees are not approved in the UK, or simply because they can’t find a job without UK work experience and they need a job in order to have experience in the UK.

These are missed opportunities, because being able to work helps maintain feelings of independence and self-sufficiency. Preventing refugees from contributing to society in their areas of expertise can leave them vulnerable to exploitation, or force them to work jobs that they are way overqualified for – and sometimes it leaves them unemployed.

In our group Syrian Ahlan wa Sahlan, we posted an announcement seeking volunteers to help organizes a Syrian dinner as a community-building event – and so many refugees offered to help out, more than usually come to benefit from our services. I was deeply touch with all the enthusiasm and willingness to help and contribute. I believe that we need to create more opportunities, more ways to empower refugees.

Trust
On a diversity training workshop for charities working with refugees in London, a common question I heard was about how to find refugees and how to gain their trust.

As refugees are feeling wars or life threating situations, it is understandable that it takes time and efforts to build trust – that’s human nature. After experiencing fear, disappointment and betrayal, trusting people become harder – and that is made even worse if the refugee does not speak English. The system here does not allow asylum seekers access to English classes until they are granted asylum in months or years. This means they are locked away from society because of the language barrier until the Home Office decides on their asylum – and then, they are magically expected to integrate into society

I also learned that integration is a two-way process. Welcoming and supporting refugees is essential if we expect successful integration.

Through our volunteers work, I have witnessed plenty of successful instances of trust-building and integration. For example, during the month of Ramadan we had a celebration of interfaith and community building activities. We co-organized an Iftar dinner at the Christ the Saviour Church and we attended a meeting at St John’s church. In both churches, we broke our fast and performed our Islamic prayers in a church room with our friends from various backgrounds and religions.

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Iftar Dinner at Christ the Savior Church. Photo by Anisa Goshi

Identity

Can you imagine having to give away your national ID card and passport and replacing them with a foreign travel document? I cried my eyes out for nights before I had to go to the Home Office and hand in my Syrian passport. I can’t rationalise that, but it felt strange and sad. I see this with other refugees I meet and I know it takes time to accept that we have a new identity – even though eventually we do end up cherishing it.

The experience of being protected and granted a safe place to live becomes part of who we are. It does not end after the five years when we get unlimited leave to remain in the UK, or even when we later apply for citizenship. For many refugees, this identity is held for generations. We keep it close to our hearts and for the rest of our lives we remember that we were welcomed and given a second chance.

 

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