Story By: Ulster Gazette
WHEN they see the ‘Welcome to Armagh’ signs on Friday, it will herald a new start for the Syrian refugee families whose lives were torn apart in their homeland.
Among them will not only be a man who suffered impaired eyesight as the result of a gun shot wound, in an outbreak of violence that also claimed his brother’s life, but also a nine-year-old girl who lost several family members in an explosion that also caused injuries to her arms and legs.
The 13 families, some of whom will also be settled in Craigavon, come from a variety of backgrounds; some were previously employed as accountants and school teachers in Syria, and some had worked in the construction sector.
In all there are 57 people in the third group of Syrian refugees to arrive in Northern Ireland, 25 of them children. A small number of them will require wheelchair assistance.
Like the previous two groups, which were settled in Belfast and the North West respectively, the families have entered the UK under the VPR (Vulnerable Persons Relocation) Scheme.
The Government-run scheme, which has a rigorous security vetting process, was established to help relocate displaced refugees living in camps in countries neighbouring Syria, primarily Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where the latest group fled to.
All Kurdish Muslims – although not all are observant – the refugees will live in privately rented accommodation sourced by the Housing Executive. Under the scheme, the refugees can stay in Northern Ireland for the next five years. Thereafter they can apply to remain in the UK indefinitely or leave.
For now, however, the short-term focus to help the refugees integrate into local life, which is a “complex process”, explained Ian Snowden, chairman of the operations planning group.
“They are starting from scratch,” he said. “The operations planning group is responsible for the day-to-day arrangements in helping them settle into life here.”
That includes housing and benefit assessments, liaising with Housing Executive, the Southern Trust, to mediating with local schools, addressing cultural differences – even down to explaining Northern Ireland slang terms!
Careful consideration has been given to the religious background of the refugees, who will have access to Ha’al meat and access to a Mosque or Islam centre.
Intensive English lessons will also be provided, and those who require medical assistance will receive it, as well as counselling services. A high level of support, provided by Barnardos, will be available to the refugees for the first four months. Thereafter it is anticipated that families will gain more independence and the need for support will no longer be required.
Yet with all that is being offered to them, Neil McKittrick, Red Cross Services Manager, insisted the refugees would happily start working the moment they landed in Northern Ireland.
“The first group have found employment in their various trades,” revealed Neil. “The first two questions you get are: ‘How do I get Wifi?’ and ‘What work do you have here?'”
The former query is one which, perhaps, in this digital age we can all identify with, yet for the refugees it is weighted with deep concern; “They still have family back home and they want to get in contact with them.
“They’re very much focused on their children and they’re immensely resilient; they’ve been living a hand-to-mouth existence and they’re very, very keen to get into employment.”
As Denise Wright – co-ordinator of the Refugee Asylum Forum – stressed, these are families who never wished to leave Syria behind in the first place, but found themselves in circumstances beyond their control. “They don’t want to leave Syria behind,” she emphasised. “For many they still have family back home and there’s a degree of survivor’s guilt felt.
“One woman was handed a bottle of water and she started to cry because her family back home doesn’t have it.”
Indeed, the effects of the traumatic events they witnessed and experienced remains with them long after they arrive in Northern Ireland. For this group of Syrians, the problem of post traumatic distress disorder is even more acute; they hail from an area in their homeland where conflict has been high, and torture and abduction is commonplace.
“From the moment you see them for the first time, you can really get a sense of the trauma they’ve been through,” said Neil.
“The welcome centre [where the refugees are first taken to when they arrive in the province] is there to make them feel comfortable, make them feel secure.
“You can actually see the moment when that stress is lifted from their faces.”
So far Northern Ireland has embraced the refugee families; not one of the Syrians in the first and second groups has been subjected to racism. Expectations are that this latest group will experience that same level of acceptance.
“They arrive here with very, very few possessions with them, and what is a daunting situation for them, yet with everything they’re very, very grateful to be coming here,” added Neil.