I wasn’t sure what to expect as I took the train from Paddington Station in London to the small regional town of Ottery St Mary in Devon, around 250 kilometres away.
I was travelling to meet a group of compassionate Brits from all walks of life who had one thing in common – an energetic desire to do something tangible to respond to needs of Syrian refugees, millions of whom have been displaced by years of brutal conflict.
The UK’s new community refugee sponsorship scheme, which was co-designed by the UK government and interested community groups, is inspired by a Canadian program which has run for about 40 years and has resettled more than 300,000 refugees.
In the UK members of the community can now sponsor the resettlement of refugees referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. To act as sponsors, a community group must raise £9,000 (AUD $16,000) and commit to providing two years of accommodation and practical assistance to the family upon their arrival in Britain.
The volunteers I met comprised a couple of teachers, a retired nurse, a dentist, a lawyer, a policeman, a church leader and various others who have rallied together to provide a comprehensive network of support to one family. In a community of just 7,000 people, they had managed to find a resident who spoke Arabic and was willing to act as interpreter while the Syrian family learns English.
Having been handed a cup of tea and a slice of sponge cake, I was introduced to the Syrian family at the heart of the gathering.
The mother Amneh is a small and quietly smiling woman and is clearly already making leaps and bounds in learning English. The father, Hani, comes across as a gregarious and energetic man – a house-painter by trade with a growing reputation for his schwarma and pizza. Their two playful young children stopped running around periodically to grab a biscuit or smear chocolatey fingers on their parents’ trousers.
They expressed varied statements of relief and gratitude in relation to their new life in the UK, with Hani at pains to emphasise how the family had been ‘saved from death’ through their resettlement. The family had fled the war in Syria and spent five years living as refugees in Jordan, initially in the sprawling Zaatri refugee camp, where their 14-day old son tragically died while the family struggled to endure a harsh snowy winter in a canvas tent.
Hani reported having been arrested, detained and threatened by authorities on many occasions for working illegally as a painter. Like most Syrian refugees in Jordan, he had no official work rights but felt he simply had to work, whatever the risks, to provide for his family’s basic needs. Exploitation was also a problem with customers often refusing to pay him for his work because they knew he could not report them to authorities without exposing himself to arrest and mistreatment.
While the family clearly feel personally safe in the UK, it was obvious that they remain very fearful for their family members left behind in Syria. One brother had recently been wounded in an indiscriminate shooting and others, including grandparents, had been unable to flee. Details of the life they had left behind stood in stark contrast to the safe and happy atmosphere of our cosy gathering.
Chatting with the community, it was plain to see what a profoundly positive experience this had been for everyone. The volunteers felt they had been personally enriched by the experience of sponsoring and spoke of the transforming effect that the sponsorship was having on some of the attitudes in the broader village.
Shopkeepers and neighbours who were initially suspicious about inviting foreigners into their small community, had come face-to-face with the recent arrivals, quickly discovering that they are just people, with ordinary needs, concerns and aspirations for their children. The refugee family appeared to be settling in quickly and integrating well thanks to the network of community support that they were receiving.
I left Devon thoroughly convinced there was no reason why Australian communities shouldn’t be allowed and encouraged to privately sponsor the resettlement of refugees into our communities.
Australia is in the process of establishing a new private sponsorship scheme but there has been little in the way of community consultation about how it should operate. The new scheme has some very promising potential but some fundamental flaws need to be addressed before it can be expected to deliver real benefits for both refugees and Australian communities.
This month Save the Children Australia will welcome the knowledge-sharing visit of Canadian experts in community refugee sponsorship.
If there are Australians willing to open their hearts, homes and wallets to expand our national response to helping refugees resettle and integrate in Australia, why not let them and indeed encourage them?