Inside Scotland’s first community sponsorship of a refugee family from Syria

Left to right: Lubna Akbar, Charlotte Gibson, Helen Watson, Stefy Bouchagiar, Erica Brooks, Nora Washbourne and Ed Watson. Picture: Neil Hanna
Left to right: Lubna Akbar, Charlotte Gibson, Helen Watson, Stefy Bouchagiar, Erica Brooks, Nora Washbourne and Ed Watson. Picture: Neil Hanna
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I describe the way our group works as being like the fable “stone soup”,’ Erica Brooks explains. “We all have something small that we can put into a pot and something wonderful comes out as a result.”

The “something wonderful” is Scotland’s first community sponsorship of a refugee family, who are due to arrive in Edinburgh next month directly from the Middle East – where they have fled their war-torn homeland of Syria.

Smoke billows out following an air strike in the northern Syrian city of Raqa. Picture: Delil Souleiman/Getty

Smoke billows out following an air strike in the northern Syrian city of Raqa. Picture: Delil Souleiman/Getty

When Brooks opened an email from the Home Office just two weeks ago to find a photograph of the family who they will host, it was the culmination of almost three years of work.

“I was stunned,” she says. “I just stared at the picture. I couldn’t believe it. It made it seem so real, it was an amazing feeling.”

The message was the final confirmation that Refugee Sponsorship Edinburgh – a group of friends and acquaintances – had been matched with a specific family, who they will help settle into their new lives in Scotland. Their responsibilities will range from offering practical support, such as helping them find local supermarkets and services, to offering friendship and a link to a social life in their new home.

The family cannot be identified for privacy reasons, except that they are a mother and father, three girls aged eight, seven and four and a baby boy of just six months. They are currently living in Lebanon, where they have been for some time.

Erica Brooks looks out some toys. Picture: Neil Hanna

Erica Brooks looks out some toys. Picture: Neil Hanna

They will be the first family to settle in Scotland under the Home Office’s community refugee sponsorship programme, which allows small groups of ordinary people to apply to fund and host refugees from Syria as part of the UK government’s pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees.

As the leader of the group, Brooks, who has a six-year-old son, is one of only two people to know the full story of what the family has endured.

“We can’t talk about it, even to others in the group,” she explains. “It is hard to make sure we don’t let anything slip, but it is their privacy that we have to protect.”

The group has dedicated the past two and a half years to the application, which began when American-born Brooks volunteered for a then grassroots organisation, Edinburgh Cares – now called World Care Foundation – set up in response to the refugee crisis, the full extent of which was beginning to be recognised throughout the world.

Charlotte Gibson and Nora Washbourne prepare beds. Picture: Neil Hanna

Charlotte Gibson and Nora Washbourne prepare beds. Picture: Neil Hanna

“I had done various things for them over a few months as a volunteer, then the head of Edinburgh Cares invited me for coffee and said he had heard of this sponsorship scheme,” she recalls. “He asked me if I’d be interested, and I thought it sounded great, so I set up a meeting with a few people to talk about it.

“Then the US elections happened a couple of days before the meeting was due to happen and Trump became president. I had never needed that meeting more in my life. I knew I had to feel like I was doing something to help.”

Recruited from Brooks’ network of friends and other parents from her son’s primary school class, as well as people she met while volunteering for organisations which support refugees, the 15-strong group offers a range of expertise.

One member works for a charity supporting people navigating the benefits system, while another is herself a Syrian who has lived in Edinburgh for over a decade and works in translation. Others are university lecturers and IT workers – but all have a dedication to doing what they can to assist in the refugee crisis, which has seen almost 12 million Syrian people displaced from their homes since civil war broke out in 2012.

Ed and Helen Watson in Palmyra in 2010

Ed and Helen Watson in Palmyra in 2010

Many of the volunteers – a lot of them parents of young children themselves – turned to the scheme as an alternative to travelling to refugee camps to offer practical support abroad.

“I couldn’t go to the camps in Calais because I had a small child,” says database developer Charlotte Gibson, referring to her daughter. “It was nice to find something concrete that I could do to help.”

The parents in the group hope that their own children will become friends with the younger new arrivals – having asked specifically to be matched with a family who have young children.

“As a lot of us are parents, we know what there is to do with children in this area,” explains Brooks, who has a six-year-old son. “It made sense for us to tap into that area of our knowledge. We want to take them to the park and show them Gorgie Farm.”

When the group first met in November 2016, the government community sponsorship scheme as a whole was very much in its infancy, although it has now helped almost 60 refugee families to settle in England and Wales. However, attempts to find a “template” to follow proved futile as other groups in Manchester and London also struggled to find their way.

“It is more than a part-time job,” says Brooks, also a freelance database developer. She lives with her family in southwest Edinburgh, where the refugee family will also settle, in a flat found by the sponsors. They are currently decorating and furnishing the apartment in preparation for the family’s arrival next month.

“The groups who were further down the line than us were really feeling their way, so at that point we just had to go it alone,” she says. “We had to create a really detailed resettlement plan of how we would do it, which had to be submitted to the Home Office for approval.”

With just over a month to go until the family arrives at Edinburgh airport, the group is busy preparing – doing everything from stocking the kitchen cupboards of the flat they have rented, to helping to find the children of the family places in a local school.

They have already sent the family a welcome pack in both English and Arabic, including pictures of themselves and the local area.

“It was just a short ‘Hi, welcome to Edinburgh – we know you’re going to love it here,’” explains Brooks. “We’ll give them a more comprehensive version with a lot more information when they arrive.”

Since 2015, more than 2,600 refugees have been resettled in Scotland – with all of the country’s 32 local authorities having taken some families.

Under Home Office regulations, the group had to raise at least £4,500 per adult, but have managed to raise far more.

In addition to basic requirements, such as paying the deposit on the family’s flat and topping up housing benefit to pay the rent, they plan to furnish the property themselves so that the family can take any furniture with them when they move on after the two-year support period. Under Home Office regulations, they have the right to stay in the UK initially for five years.

Tim Finch, founding director of Sponsor Refugees – a spin-off of Citizens UK, a community organising group and registered charity which stepped in to lead the Edinburgh application – has been involved for over a year.

He says: “This is all due to the efforts of what is essentially a group of friends and neighbours in Edinburgh. They heard about the scheme a couple of years ago and have been incredibly tenacious and resilient in pursuing it. They will have to literally help them set up their life in Edinburgh. What the group will do, I find amazing.

“Scotland has been the vanguard of Syrian resettlement in the UK,” Finch adds, acknowledging that the country has taken more than its share of the UK target. “Perhaps it is because the councils have been doing it so well that people have not felt the need to set up community groups in Scotland.”

Inspired by Canada’s Private Sponsors programme, which has resettled over 300,000 refugees since 1979, the idea of community sponsorship has been adopted by a number of other countries around the world. The Edinburgh group hopes that their work will inspire others in Scotland to do the same.

Conservationist Helen Watson, who has taken on the role of safeguarding expert in the group, travelled to Syria in 2010 – two years before war broke out – with her husband, Ed, a teacher. The pair spent a month cycling across the country and have vivid memories of the people they met there.

“We were lucky enough to meet a lot of people who invited us into their homes,” she explains. “But we have no idea what has now happened to any of them.”

Helen Watson’s family history was an additional driver to spur the couple on to take action when the refugee crisis hit.

“In my family, we have a lot of stories of people who had to move because of World War Two,” she says. “I feel like this is our generation’s humanitarian crisis and it’s important to try to rise to the challenge in some way.”

Nora Washbourne, another member of the group, agrees. Born in America, she remembers what it was like when she first moved to the UK.

Many of the group are originally from another country – with others born in Greece and Germany, as well as other Americans.

“It can be really daunting when you move to a new country,” Washbourne explains. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be when you’re not able to speak the language and read anything around you.”

Sabine Gundel, who became involved in Edinburgh Council’s befriending scheme when the first refugees were brought to Scotland four years ago, has experience of helping a Syrian family settle in.

“It is everything [that is difficult for them],” she says. “It isn’t just the language, but even the products look different from what they are used to. I took the woman in the family I helped to Boots one day, where she was looking for tablets for the washing machine, but she just found it so difficult on her own.”

While the group knows what areas of work the family have been involved in in Syria, they also recognise that their lives will have changed dramatically since war broke out. Many families have lost their houses and businesses due to bombing raids on Syrian cities, while others worry they may never return for fear of persecution.

As people who have been accepted by the government as refugees, they have full rights to work and claim benefits in the UK.

“They have been in Lebanon for a while,” says Brooks. “Before that, we know what areas they were interested in and we have put out some feelers in those areas, but it may be that that isn’t the way they want to go at all. They may feel like ‘I never want to do that again.’”

She adds: “We’re here to support them in their new lives and in their goals. We don’t want to be patronising. One thing we really need to be careful of is that we’re not too overwhelming, that we give them some space to settle in in their own time.”

Since the launch of the community sponsorship scheme in July 2016, 57 community groups UK-wide have already welcomed and supported a family – a total of 219 refugees.

Jewels Lang, communities manager at Scottish Refugee Council, which has supported the group, stresses that community sponsorship should be regarded as an “additional” route to bring refugees to Scotland, alongside government measures.

She says: “This is exciting news for Refugee Sponsorship Edinburgh, and we congratulate them on all their hard work to be selected to ‘sponsor’ a refugee family. We know that the family arriving shortly to Edinburgh will be supported by a well-prepared and committed group of people.

“Community groups have played a major role in supporting these new Scots to build new lives, develop friendships and connections and offer practical support, such as practising English and help finding jobs.”

She adds: “We believe community sponsorship works best when it is an additional route to resettlement for refugees in Scotland, and should not be seen as a replacement to vital state-funded resettlement schemes, which have seen every council across Scotland take in refugee families in the past four years.”

The UK government’s regulations state that a refugee family must have “their own front door” – meaning that they cannot be hosted in the home of any of the volunteers, even for a short time.

For the group, this meant forging relationships with local estate agents who were sympathetic to the cause.

It was just days before a meeting with Home Office officials, who travelled to Edinburgh to meet the group that they found a property.

“We mentioned in the meeting that we had the chance of a flat and that turned things around,” says Brooks. “They said they would change our application from a pre-approval to a full approval.”

A Home Office spokesman says: “We are pleased with the progress the community sponsorship scheme has made and praise the efforts of groups such as Refugee Sponsorship Edinburgh who are preparing to welcome a vulnerable refugee family.”

Edinburgh Council, which itself has welcomed refugees in the past four years, has been a huge support for the group.

Councillor Donald Wilson, convener of culture and communities at Edinburgh Council, welcomed the sponsorship. He said: “Our Refugee and Migration Programme team worked closely with the group members as they developed their plans over the last two years.

“We have strong links with them which I’m sure will continue. Edinburgh residents are known to be charitable and I’m sure they will get behind the group’s campaign. I believe that the more organisations and people who lend support locally, the more impact this support can and will have.”

For Brooks and her friends, the family’s arrival is just the beginning of the journey.

Two of the group are already planning to meet the family at Edinburgh Airport and are to stock the fridge with meals for them to heat up in their first days in Scotland.

“There will be a lot to do and some of it we don’t even know what it will be yet,” says Brooks. Yet the work has not dissuaded them from starting all over again.

“Why not?” she asks. “A lot of groups down south are starting with their second family now. We might do it again.”