Northern Ireland is showing the UK Government up when it comes to Syrian refugees

In Northern Ireland, a new welcome centre looks after Syrian refugees. 

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In a recent trip to Northern Ireland I met a mother called Rola who was with her three year old son and seven month baby girl. We spoke parent-to-parent about the concerns we share and how we want the best for our children.  

There was just one, very significant difference: Rola and her family had until very recently been living in a refugee camp in Lebanon after their Damascus neighbourhood was flattened in a bombing raid.  

I cannot even imagine waking up one day to find that everything you have ever known is gone forever. How do you explain that to your children? How do you make life stable for them after that? 

Rola tells me she only now feels safe after three years, having made it to Belfast, where Barnardo’s is working with partners to support refugee families rebuild their lives. 

So many families who once had a normal life, like you and me – getting up, going to work, spending time with friends - are being forced to flee their homes, taking on dangerous journeys in the hope of a safe and better life. Tragically, in 2015 close to 3,000 people, including children, died trying to reach Europe. 

In January 2014, two and a half years ago, the Government announced it would start to take in refugees from Syria, albeit a very small number. Since then politicians have been vague about who and how many refugees the UK will take. The Government still has not outlined a plan of how people will actually be supported when they arrive.  

Northern Ireland leads the way on refugees 

In this Refugee Week, we are calling on Government to set out how it will help these children, whose unique circumstances put them so desperately in need.

We said back in September that the Government must urgently prioritise specialist, tailored, care for refugee children, and put in place a strategic resettlement plan for the assessment and support of all Syrian refugees taken in by the UK. We have seen no evidence that any of this has been done. 

The newly created Refugee Support Service in Northern Ireland is a good example of what can be achieved when organisations pull together to achieve a united aim. There, our workers are helping refugee families come to terms with their ordeal and support them to settle into new communities, as part of the UK Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme.  

Unlike in England, on arrival Syrian families are taken straight to a welcome centre where their immediate health, social and emotional needs are addressed. Many suffer from serious health issues when they first arrive so highly experienced Red Cross medical staff are on site to quickly give families high quality medical treatment. 

During my visit to the project where I met Rola, I also met other families such as Abed, Salina and their children. He told me that he’s a skilled tiler and that, more than anything else in the world, he wants to work and provide for his family again.  

Families like Abed’s and Salina’s are supported by a Barnardo’s key worker for up to four months. Our help is tailored to their needs, but for many families the first three months focus on GP registrations, hospital appointments, dental care and more, while our team works to find housing and secure school and educational placements for both parents and children.  

So far we’ve supported 11 families, including 37 children. Early results are promising, proving that specialist support must be the centrepiece of any work with refugees. The families say they are grateful for the refuge given to them in Northern Ireland, when it’s been so long since they have felt safe and supported. 

Working in partnership is crucial for these families, who need specialist support to help them as they rebuild their lives. 

It was an honour to be invited into their new homes, and learn about their experiences. They have come through incredible hardships with grace and dignity and I hope they will flourish in their new lives.  

Javed Khan is chief executive of children's charity Barnardo's