Local refugee group gathers momentum

The Afghan family now living in Lewis, having fled the tyranny of the Taliban, have offered to lend their skills and experience to other families who may look to re-settle on the island.

By Murray MacLeod
Thursday, 13th January 2022, 9:54 am
Sports centre staff are among those to now pledge their support
Sports centre staff are among those to now pledge their support

This was one of a number of positive outcomes following the inaugural public meeting of a local committee which hopes to facilitate the re-settlement of refugees and which heard that the “warmth and generosity” of the islands provides the ideal backdrop for success.

Despite only being formed this month, Communities for Refugees Western Isles has already had a “positive response” and have set a fund-raising target of £9,000 to finance the arrangements required to welcome another family to the islands.

The group, formed initially by Dr Mhairi Murdoch and colleagues at the Western Isles Hospital, also now involves Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, with whom they will partner in the re-settlement process.

Sign up to our daily Stornoway Gazette Today newsletter

At an online public meeting on Saturday afternoon, speakers emphasised the importance of communities putting their personal stamp on a welcome to refugees – particularly so given that the Western Isles is probably the smallest community yet to embrace the idea of a formal settlement initiative.

The meeting was hosted by Sponsor Refugee, a UK foundation that works with community groups to welcome refugees to their local neighbourhoods. Their spokesman Tim Finch said the idea of helping a family was “wonderful, hard work, yet simple”.

There are two complementary UK programmes running. The UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS) is operated through local government and was the scheme under which Comhairle nan Eilean Siar successfully supported eight Syrian families to make new lives in the Western Isles.

The second scheme, the Community Sponsorship Scheme, is now being explored by Communities for Refugees Western Isles.

Under this scheme a community works in cooperation with the local authority to facilitate resettlement, allowing for more people to be welcomed, over and above the quota set by the UK Government.

Tim said: “Resettlement in this country has been going for a number of years, most recently with the Syrian resettlement scheme, which resulted in 20,000 refugees settling in the UK, a large number of these in Scotland.

“Community resettlement is run with the support of local groups who feel they could come together and welcome a refugee family from the moment they arrive on UK soil.

“You will be their friends and neighbours, who have done this out of the goodness of your heart and out of love. You do not need to be an expert in refugee integration, but you need to know how your own community works and to be able to give hours and skills over a long time to help people make a new life.”

Also speaking at the meeting were Western Isles doctors James Penny and Cassie Northcott, who described their experience working in a refugee camp in Samos, Greece, where 9,000 refugees lived on a site originally planned for 600.

There they dealt with everyday illnesses and with some of the specific issues faced by refugees – from malnutrition to post-traumatic stress disorder – and they experienced the frustration of being unable to fundamentally change the situation that people were living in.

But, returning to the islands, they learnt of the plan to launch community sponsorship in Lewis, which was, said Cassie "like a breath of fresh island air”,

James added: “Most of the families welcomed to the UK through this scheme have been in much larger communities than this, but we have witnessed the warmth and generosity of the island community and we think a new family will be welcomed here with open arms.”

And some of those who have already experienced a welcome also spoke.

Frishta and Farzana were brought to Lewis from Afghanistan, with their family, thanks to the Linda Norgrove Foundation, for whom they had worked supporting the foundation’s projects in Afghanistan.

Both have now offered their skills and experience to the sponsorship of a new refugee family.

Farzana said: “We had a simple life in Kabul, then suddenly everything changed and we had to leave everything – our beloved families, our jobs.

“It was definitely not an easy journey to Stornoway and it is not easy knowing that you are going to be starting from zero when you arrive, but we were very fortunate to have the support of the Linda Norgrove Foundation and Western Isles council.

“After almost three months of hard traveling, we now finally live in a house which we can call home. We want to be useful members of society and we are glad to be part of this project, which will help refugees come to the island.”

Communities for Refugees Western Isles has to raise £9,000 towards the sponsorship, and to secure accommodation for the family, as well as ensuring that vital issues like education, employment and good financial management are properly addressed by the group.

Once somewhere to live has been secured, formal local authority approval has to be given, and an application in principle is then made to the Home Office.

Anyone who wants to help can contact [email protected] and the group’s progress can be followed on the Facebook group Communities for Refugees//Western Isles, Scotland at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1042996372934755