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Sandie Lewis, Wiltshire Council
16 February 2016
Sandie Lewis is Voluntary Coordinator for the Wiltshire Refugee Programme and Chair of the Wiltshire Refugee Operations Group. She told us the story of planning for and subsequent arrival of 27 Refugees (8 families) on 2nd December 2015.
Sandie described the response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria as overwhelmingly positive across the county, with many volunteers providing support over and above anything that could be reasonably expected.
The venture began in the Summer of 2015 following David Cameron's call to local authorities to make offers to the Home Office for families they could accommodate. The programme was to be funded from the Overseas Aid Budget...a fact which has helped enormously because local people could be reassured that Wiltshire residents were not being disadvantaged by funds diverted to this project. How was accommodation was provided? 'Hard-to-let' flats belonging to social housing landlords were decorated, furnished and equipped in the most economical way through voluntary sector partners and personalised once families had been matched to homes.
A well equipped coach with 3 staff and two Syrian volunteer translators arrived at Stanstead on December 2nd, and our excitement was matched with the trepidation of the arriving families! There were two tiny babies, one only eight weeks old, as well as well as seven other children aged under five and four over the age of five. Once in Wiltshire in late evening, volunteer Council staff transported each family to their new home where two further community volunteers awaited their arrival to make tea and explain the intricacies of central heating systems! Once settled the volunteers left the families to rest... some had been travelling for 3 days to get to the UK.
There were a huge number of bureaucratic tasks to be undertaken in the following week, including biometric passes, registration with the Department of Work and Pensions, signing up to GPs and dentists, signing tenancy agreements and many more. Everything had been translated into Arabic or a translator was present and without the assistance of a huge number of volunteers the tasks would have been impossible.
Although Wiltshire Council has taken the lead in this programme, the Refugee Programme Board chaired by the Corporate Director which underpins it, is truly multi-agency, with senior representation from the Police, Fire & Rescue, DWP, the Clinical Commissioning Group and NHS England. An Operations Group of senior practitioners across all disciplines, then plans and implements the practicalities. There were of course hiccoughs along the way... unprepared surgery staff, dental emergencies, leaky washing machines... but small matters in the scheme of things.
The most astonishing thing to date is how incredibly well the families are adapting to their new life and how well they have been accepted in their communities. How astonishing is the move from living for up to two years in cramped and often unhygienic conditions on the edge of a Jordanian or Lebanese city, to a little flat in a Wiltshire market town, with barely a blip? Now in a few short weeks, children are at school or nursery, everyone is working hard at English lessons (three people were already fluent, most had no English), some are doing voluntary work and preparing for paid work, all are assisting with preparations for the new refugee families due in late May.
Two of the women are working with a local Bistro to put on a 3 day 'Arabian Nights' menu for April, the proceeds from which will go to Save The Children for Syrian children in the camps in Lebanon and Jordan. All the families know they are some of the lucky ones and are constantly thinking about their loved ones left behind. One glimmer of hope for them is that the Home Office is giving priority to United Nations registered Syrians who have families now in Europe. We expect to welcome the mothers of two of our refugees this Summer and all of us will celebrate that reunion.
The work for this project has been some of the hardest in 30 years of social work, but also brought some of the most rewards. The welcome in Wiltshire has been wonderful to see; the resilience of the refugee families even more so. We look forward to more families arriving and our current families blossoming. We have stopped calling them refugees... they are Wiltshire families now, bringing more welcome diversity, fun and colour to our county.