How Lancaster has welcomed Syrian refugees

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In the last few months, 29 refugees from Syria, Sudan, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq have made Lancaster their new home as they escape war and persecution in their homelands. Guardian reporter GAYLE ROUNCIVELL spoke to two Syrian refugees about how much their life has changed, and how grateful they are to the people of Lancaster.

ANAS’S STORY

Anas, 32, travelled to England from Damascus, where he worked in marketing and studied business management at Damascus University.

“I was requested for military service, and you don’t have a choice,” he said. “If you don’t go you are killed.

“I had to leave because I didn’t want to do military service.

“In Damascus they have put checkpoints on each road and each checkpoint has a list of names – if you are in the age of military service you will be caught.

“I travelled to Lebanon and then to Turkey and then flew to England. The whole journey from Syria took two-and-a-half months.

“On the way there were a lot of checkpoints. At the Syrian border I had to pay someone to get me through.”

Anas has left behind his parents, two sisters and a brother in Damascus.

“We are always waiting for any kind of news,” he said. “I talk to my family every two days. It’s very stressful. There’s always bombing or rockets falling, and you are always worried that one day it will be at their place.

“There’s no place that you can say is completely safe and you don’t know where it’s coming from next.

“My family are just trying to live. That’s the maximum target you can have in Syria right now – just to have a chance to live.”

Anas arrived in England in February and came to Lancaster in April. He is still waiting to hear if he will be granted leave to remain.

Until then he is living on £5 a day since he is unable to claim any benefits until he receives official refugee status.

“We are not allowed to work until we are given the decision on whether we can stay or not,” he said.

“But I am not looking to be taking a lot of money, I just want to survive with my life until things get better in Syria and I can go back to my normal life.

“Most of my friends that stayed behind have been killed. No family in Syria has survived without losing someone.

“We hope to have a good life here but of course the main thing we are hoping is that things will get better in our country so we can go back to our families.

“There are a lot of things you can’t take with you. It was really hard to leave without friends and family.

“We knew it would be difficult to come here. But at least we have escaped from war. Whatever would be the worst to happen along the way, it was not worse than being killed.

“I feel really lucky to be here. People here are very friendly to strangers. That has made our stay easier and more comfortable. People here are very kind to us.

“I arrived to a place where I don’t know anyone and was living in a house with people I didn’t know.

“To get the welcome we have had makes you feel more comfortable. We have enough pressure already that you don’t need any more from where you are living.

“It helps our family too. When you are sad and under pressure then talking to them is very different. If you are having a good time then it helps to raise their hope too.

“I want to thank everybody for their treatment of us. They are lovely. Their kindness has really helped us and is still helping us.

“We hope that we can give them a good impression other than what the media is showing.

“The media will show what it wants you to see. It’s not always correct.

“You hope that people will change their minds about refugees because it will help everyone’s future.

“A lot of people are mixing up refugees and immigrants.

“As a refugee I didn’t come here to get a good job. I had a good life and job in Syria and I don’t expect to have that here.

“We came here because our lives were in danger. We escaped from danger to safety and this is what I believe most of the Syrian refugees are escaping from.

“We had a good life in Syria. Life is much cheaper there than here. This wasn’t an economic decision, it was to survive. That was the decision we had to make.”

BASHAR’S STORY

Bashar is 34 and originally from Damascus, although for the last nine years he had been living in Dubai with his wife and their two children, a four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. He worked in IT support at a hospital.

“I was living in Dubai and every two years you have to renew your working visa,” he said. “But last year they didn’t renew it, they were only renewing visas for people who were doctors and jobs like that.

“I had to leave but I couldn’t go anywhere except Turkey. I couldn’t go back to Syria, they had already killed my dad in 2011 and my brother was arrested for singing freedom songs in the streets. If I returned I would have to do military service.

“I went to Turkey and then I paid someone there to put me on a boat to Greece.

“I then paid 9,000 Euros to get a fake passport to come to England.”

Bashar arrived in the UK last November, spending several months living in hotels and hostels in London, Manchester and Scotland before he came to Lancaster.

He has been granted leave to remain, meaning he can now claim benefits and start looking for work.

He is now waiting to see if his family can join him.

“My wife was a nurse; most of my friends were able to have their family here with them in one or two months but she is still in Dubai trying to get a visa,” he said.

“I last saw my wife and children in October. My mum and brother are still in Syria, but I have lost my dad and my cousins and friends.

“Even if you have the money there are things you can’t buy. We have had to leave our homes to stay alive.”

HELPING THE REFUGEES

Lancaster and Morecambe City of Sanctuary is a voluntary group set up last year by Joe and Caitlin Bourne with Green city councillor Rebecca Novell.

Based at Marsh Community Centre, the group works with other local organisations such as Churches Together, Global Link, and East Meets West to welcome the refugees, help them find housing, arrange English lessons and offer legal and medical support.

The refugees are placed in housing while they await the Home Office decision on whether they can remain in the UK.

If they are refused, they are given a six-month period to appeal the decision.

Joint project coordinator Rebecca Novell said: “There are a lot of myths about the refugees coming into the UK, about where they live and what support they get.

“All the houses they are placed in in Lancaster are unused student houses. They are not given council houses.

“While they are waiting for asylum to be given, they have £5 a day to live on.

The group is informed by Serco – a security firm operating on behalf of the Home Office – when refugees are due to arrive in the city.

Up to 300 could be housed in Lancaster in the coming years.

“So far we have had 29 male refugees from Syria, Sudan, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq. They are aged from 18 to 40,” said Rebecca. “We are expecting another 32 next month, probably including families.”

The group has helped organise events to occupy the refugees during their stay in Lancaster.

This has included some of the English-speaking men giving talks in local schools about their experiences, and they also hosted a Syrian People’s Cafe at Marsh Community Centre for local residents.

“I can honestly say the cafe is one of the most heart-warming, joyful things I have ever been involved in,” Rebecca said.

“We catered for 120 and sold out in an hour with nearly 400 people turning up. We raised £1,000 [for City of Sanctuary] in three hours and there were people queuing round the block outside.

“This last year has been the most amazing time. Lancaster is 90 per cent white British and it has been so nice to speak to people from different cultures; we have learnt so much.

“To think about what they have been through just puts things in perspective for you.”

City of Sanctuary secretary Caitlin Bourne said: “It’s a privilege to get to know these guys.

“The group was started up last summer after seeing what was happening and wanting to help.

“We now have about 30 volunteers, and we had people coming to us after the EU referendum saying they felt helpless and wanted to help to show we are a welcoming country.

“Being a part of it is amazing, it shows just how open Lancaster is and how many people want to get involved in making a difference.”

FACTS ABOUT ASYLUM

* Asylum seekers and refugees do not get large handouts from the state

* Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and a single asylum seeker gets just over £5 a day (£36.96 a week) to pay for all food, travel, clothing, toiletries and all other expenses excluding housing and fuel bills

* Asylum seekers do not jump the queue for council housing and they cannot choose where they live. The accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council

* If someone gets refugee status, they have 28 days to find alternative accommodation, before their asylum benefits are cut and they are required to leave their house

* More than 4.5m people have fled conflict in Syria, and many more are displaced inside the country. Turkey is the biggest refugee hosting country in the world, giving sanctuary to 2.5m Syrian refugees, while Jordan and Lebanon host 1.7m between them. By the end of 2015 the UK had resettled 1,000 Syrian refugees

* In the UK in 2015, 41 per cent of people who applied for asylum were granted it at initial decision