Lesley Riddoch: Hands-on help for Syrians in Scotland

The story of the ten relatively happy refugee families has been overshadowed by the unhappy two, writes Lesley Riddoch

Syrian refugee families arrive at their new homes on the Isle of Bute in December last year. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
Syrian refugee families arrive at their new homes on the Isle of Bute in December last year. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Yusra Mardini, aged 18, is a Syrian refugee with a difference – she’s competing in the women’s 100m butterfly for the newly formed Refugee Team at the Rio Olympics. When did she realise she could swim? Last year in the bitterly cold Aegean Sea when she paddled for almost four hours to help pull a small boat of refugees ashore. Remarkable stories of courage like Yusra’s make it all the harder to accept that keeping refugees out of Britain was a factor in the overwhelming Brexit vote south of the Border. In Scotland, of course, the vote was rather different. But last week our ability to offer real homes to refugees was questioned by one well-circulated article in a London-based tabloid.

The paper quoted two families of Syrian refugees settled on the island of Bute who said they now felt depressed because the island is “where people come to die”. Both families said they had hoped to go to Glasgow or Manchester where there are more Arabic people and better chances of learning English and finding a job.

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Now of course people are allowed to feel what they feel. Who would be surprised if a ­refugee from a busy, hot city in the Middle East found rainy Rothesay hard to adjust to as a permanent home – especially since it’s the top 15 per cent of our most deprived areas. But since Scotland’s taken far more than its population share of ­Syrian refuges (38 per cent of the UK total) and dispersed them across the 16 Scottish council areas (many rural) which signed up to the UK government’s resettlement scheme – it matters if the reactions of two families speak for the silent majority or do not.

Columnist and veteran Bute holiday maker Ian Jack wrote; “Five weeks earlier, a reporter had come to Bute to pursue another story involving a refugee. The story proved untrue, but the reporter made contacts in the Syrian community who later got in touch with the paper to publicise concerns about their lack of prospects on the island. Through cutting and sharpening, the paper made the complaints more provocative. In the days since the story appeared, other refugees have come forward to say how happy they are on the island – how well they have been treated, how nice the people are. A balance has been restored.”

According to local councillor Isobel Strong; “Last weekend was Butefest where many of the younger [Syrian] men helped erect the staging and fencing. Some are working at Mount Stuart [the local estate] and one is working as a barber. Some are doing extra English classes to pass the theory part of the driving test. All are learning English through the Council’s Adult Learning Unit and helping out at Bute Advice Centre, which helps their English.”

The Refugee Support Group was started after Isobel called a public meeting to see what useful skills lay in the community; “I had about 30 people including retired doctors, social workers, foster carers and home helps as well as two Arabic speakers. Rotary came on board plus all the Churches who offered halls for meeting places and the Unitarian Church provided starter packs for each family.”

Somehow the story of the ten relatively happy Syrian families has been overshadowed by the exaggerated reservations of the unhappy two.

It’s the same story in Fife where five families were settled in Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy. Fife Council offered housing, access to medical support and a place in the education system for children, but local people did so much more.

The Fife Arabic Society (FAS) raised thousands of pounds in collections at the local mosque and used this to buy the families white goods, TVs, electrical items, and a week’s food supplies. A new organisation, Refuge Fife, was set up to provide clothes, bedding and money for extras. One member got the women at her church to knit baby hats and jumpers for the first Scots-Syrian baby, born in April. A donations day resulted in hundred of bags of goods given by the public and volunteers spent the day sorting the clothes to store.

According to organiser Marie Penman; “As we were working, one of the local Syrians popped in to see us. He’s a lovely guy, about 30, speaks some English.

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“While we were chatting, he asked if he could take a cardigan for his wife as she felt the cold more than him. I told him to take anything he wanted, for his wife and children.

“I noticed he was wearing an old pair of worn-out shoes (lots of the Syrians have walked huge distances to escape) so I asked what shoe size he was. It so happened, we’d just opened a donations bag, full of men’s shoes, and there was a pair of trainers in his size, brand new with the tags still on. I insisted he take them (he kept saying ‘no, they’re for the refugees’) but he eventually put them on.

“They fitted perfectly and he was so happy, he had tears in his eyes and kept thanking me, over and over again. It was one pair of trainers but he was ridiculously grateful.”

Another of Fife’s young Syrians is disabled and drags his foot as he walks which means he wears out lots of pairs of shoes, so a local charity shop keeps back all the shoes in his size and hands them over to Refuge Fife to pass on to him. A local B&B was ­getting refurbished with new curtains, bedding and towels so they gave all their old stuff for the Syrians.

Marie says: “I think local people like the fact they can directly help Syrians living locally.

“One woman came into our donations day to give £20. Just then, one of the mums stopped by with her baby, so I introduced them, the local woman handed over the cash and to the two women hugged.”

Marie’s local Green MSP and SNP MP have urged the UK government to accept more refugees, especially unaccompanied minors, because Scots have shown they can provide real homes.

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There’s little chance Theresa May will respond or the papers happy to dent Scotland’s reputation for hospitality, will report this call.

But Scots should know about the positive work to create real homes for refugees happening all over Scotland. Unsung and under-reported but very real.