LONDON: A summer rainstorm pounded down on the eaves of Christ the Saviour church hall in London as Fardous Bahbouh poured tea and set up the makeshift classroom where she teaches some 25 Syrian refugees how to ask for directions in English, shop for groceries and navigate British norms in making new friends. Bahbouh’s class is part of a larger Facebook community called “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” – Arabic for welcome – one of many small local efforts that have sprung up across Britain to help migrants who have made their way to the country after fleeing civil war in Syria.
“Being a refugee myself, I know how it feels to be away from home and having no option to return,” said Bahbouh on a recent Thursday. A language teacher in her 30s from Syria, she was studying for a master’s degree here when war broke out and prevented her from going home. Now she teaches others as a way of giving back to those who helped her. As the UK struggles to implement its commitment to resettle more than 20,000 Syrians, the government is counting on charities and community groups to help the newcomers adjust to life in Britain. The Home Office has for the first time set up a program to allow local organizations to sponsor refugees and the agency’s website directs volunteers to migrant charities that need their help.
While Britain initially resisted international pressure to accept large numbers of refugees, more than 9,000 Syrians have filed for asylum in the UK since 2011. That is a tiny fraction of the 1.1 million Syrians who registered throughout Europe during the same period, including almost 377,000 in Germany alone, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Local groups say they can be incubators for programs, providing a blueprint for transition that will help larger efforts succeed. After all, local communities are fundamental to the success of any resettlement effort, said Maurizio Albahari, author of “Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border,” and a social anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
“By working to facilitate every aspect of refugee resettlement, local communities quietly but steadily demonstrate to all levels of government that the arrival of refugees is neither unwanted nor impractical, and that xenophobia cannot be taken for granted,” Albahari said. One of the groups that is already serving refugees is Citizens UK, which helps them get health care, schooling and housing. Bekele Woyecha, a community organizer and former refugee from Ethiopia, said individuals – not the central government -have taken the lead. “This is a county known for offering sanctuary,” Woyecha said. “We want to keep that tradition.”
In addition to language classes, Ahlan Wa Sahlan hosts social events, such as recent communal meal during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Such occasions are important, because they offer the newcomers a chance to talk about home and speak with others who share similar stories about the war and the treacherous journey they faced to get here. All ages and walks of life are represented in Ahlan Wa Sahlan: An elderly painter pulled from the rubble of Aleppo, a shy newlywed couple, and Karam AlHabbal, who dreams of going to a British university and becoming a pilot. Confident and funny, his English is already so good that he volunteers to help others. He has just turned 18 and gained residency status but will reveal few details of his travels to Britain for fear of endangering others.
“I have a normal life now I’ve come to a safe country.” he said. “My country has been destroyed.” At a picnic in London’s Regent’s Park, in the shadow of the golden dome of London’s Central Mosque, Bahbouh’s group meets once again. This time, bikes and biscuits replace notepads and pens. Bahbouh arrived with two decorated cream cakes to celebrate AlHabbal’s birthday and new residency status, and the aspiring pilot rushed to upload photos on Instagram.
Some of the young men took selfies in the sunshine, while another sat on the grass and broke into a melancholy Arabic song. From the outside, they looked like any other group of Londoners enjoying a picnic on a rare day of sun, but they were also compatriots helping one another navigate a new society and piece together a new life. While Bahbouh’s group can’t replace the jobs, property and prospects the refugees left behind in Syria, she is trying to replenish the intangible assets of love, hope and confidence. “I am optimistic,” Bahbouh said. “No war lasts forever.” – AP