As we enter our third month of living with the exceptional challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that there are some, now living in West Sussex, who have had to cope with even greater life-threatening dangers and life-changing uncertainty.
These are the people who have had to flee their own war-torn countries and have been granted permission to seek refuge amongst us.
The multi-sided conflict that has afflicted Syria since 2011 has created such a severe humanitarian disaster that it is now estimated that more than 13million Syrians are in need of assistance and more than 4million are registered as refugees.
To be classed as a refugee means that you and your family will have lost everything – your home, your business, your safety and even access to justice itself.
In 2015, the British government decided to back the United Nations’ Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS) by setting up a centrally-funded programme that would resettle up to 20,000 Syrians in need of protection in the UK. Of these, West Sussex has been asked to support a maximum of 60 families, or 250 persons in total, and West Sussex County Council, working with local councils and charities, has co-ordinated the refugees’ phased arrival over the last few years.
One such family has come from Syria’s second city, Aleppo. Mr and Mrs A had a construction company and their two children were in full-time education.
Mrs A said: “We weren’t rich but nor were we poor, sort of in the middle, and life was good until the war came.”
The war saw massive bombing in the city, which destroyed the families’ home and business and Mr A lost his father and brothers to the fighting. With nowhere to stay, they had no choice but to flee to a refugee camp in Jordan, where they remained for over two years.
However, through the SVPRS, the family was offered a house in Chichester, where they now live. Both children have started at college and, while their parents are struggling to learn English, they are all starting to settle into their new adopted community with the support of Sanctuary in Chichester.
Tony Toynton, chairman of this very active charity, tells me that the welcome extended to this vulnerable family is typical – wholehearted and very practical, with clothes and basic domestic equipment often being the top priorities.
Meanwhile, Gay Jacklin from Worthing 4 Refugees confirms the commitment of her group, as well: “We have a vision for Worthing to be a place of welcome, safety, integration and justice for refugees.”
But, as she also pointed out, one of the most difficult issues that their families face is the British enthusiasm for form-filling, usually online, for just about everything. In Syria, much of this sort of business is done via mobile and the internet is not nearly so heavily used.
The Sussex Syrian Community Group, lead by Ahmad Yabroudi, reaches out to fellow Syrians across Sussex. His group has a day centre in Brighton and, amongst other services, offers adult education and advice.
Ahmad has told me that, sadly, it remains too dangerous for refugees to return to Syria but he remains very grateful that they have been given the opportunity to start a new life in peace and to link up with other Syrian families in Sussex in safety.
As with the rest of the voluntary sector, social distancing makes it much more complicated to provide support to our West Sussex refugee families, and to raise much-needed funds, but the charities are still remaining very active – albeit via phone and video.
However, as the restrictions ease, I look forward to meeting some of these courageous families for myself and welcoming them to West Sussex as well. Through their very difficult journeys, they remind us just how fortunate we are to live in this wonderful county.
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