Meet the volunteers saving thousands of refugees: “There’s not one day I don’t feel guilty”

Exiled from Syria by war, Nour felt helpless for years. Then she discovered a network of quiet humanitarians. 

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In April 2016, Nour entered the Birmingham airport arrivals hall. “That experience totally changed my life,” she says. “I will never forget that day, ever.”

A slim, smartly-dressed lawyer, Nour came to the UK to study human rights in 2011, the same year that protests in Syria turned into first an uprising, and then a full-blown war. She spent the first years of the conflict feeling helpless: “We were just desperate to do something and we couldn’t.” Her own family remained trapped in Syria. “I would go days, weeks without hearing from them.”

The British government initially tried to focus its money on the swelling refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Then, in 2015, newspapers around the world published the photo of the body of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian Kurdish toddler who drowned when his family attempted the crossing from Turkey to Greece. In the midst of the global outrage, the then-prime minister, David Cameron, announced the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, with the goal of relocating 20,000 refugees to Britain by 2020. “When they launched the scheme that was my chance,” says Nour. “I thought ‘I have to do something.’”

That summer, tens of thousands marched in London under the banner of “Refugees Welcome”, but by the autumn, the mood once again had changed. An early group of refugees, arriving in Scotland days after the Paris attacks, were subject to media scrutiny. “Why are Syrian refugees being foisted on a remote Scottish island with high unemployment and poverty – then given perks some locals don't enjoy?” demanded a widely criticised (and widely shared) Daily Mail article. The article included close up photos in which the refugees were clearly identifiable. 

Despite the negative press coverage, a quiet humanitarian movement was underway. After the establishment of the council-led resettlement scheme, in 2016, a second initiative opened to far less media coverage – the community sponsorship scheme. Refugees were drawn from the same pool of vulnerable people, but the resettlement was to be handled entirely by a community group, with the permission of the local authority. Although take-up was initially slow – raising the £9,000 required as well as finding a suitable home is somewhat intimidating – the example of one group spread by word of mouth. Other initiatives included Refugees at Home, which matched volunteers with destitute adult asylum seekers, and Help Refugees, set up by a group of volunteers delivering provisions to the informal refugee camp in Calais. 

In her adopted home of Milton Keynes, Nour began emailing people, and although the details of the scheme were still unclear, she managed to connect with Citizens UK, and enough like-minded people to form what eventually became Refugees Welcome Milton Keynes. The next step was lobbying the council to participate. “We didn’t have experience,” she recalls. “We were only a group of seven people and I was the youngest.” The council asked them to source accommodation. This meant finding willing landlords and then preparing the homes for the new arrivals. “I finished work at five, was at the house painting and putting bunkbeds together and then they told us the first two families are coming,” she recalls.

The volunteers, joined by fellow volunteers from the Red Cross, went to Birmingham to pick up them up. For Nour, it was a shock. “All these years I lived in Syria, I lived in the centre of Damascus, I probably didn’t have that much contact with people from different backgrounds,” she says. “These were people from my country and when they arrived in the airport they looked so desperate, they looked so ill, they looked so sad.” One little girl had no shoes. When they realised Nour spoke Arabic, they begged her for information. “The mum held my hand and said, ‘Please tell me where I am going?’ They didn’t even know.” Later, the same woman confided that her children had never slept on beds before in their lives.

The volunteers’ work had only just begun. No sooner had they registered the families with GPs, schools, and helped them settle into their homes, but the council agreed to bring 50 more people. So far, the council has committed to resettling 150 people, of which roughly 90 (15 families) have arrived.

For all the well-intentioned coverage of refugees-turned-entrepreneurs, charities on the ground frequently warn about patchy English language provisionthe need for mental health support and the general loneliness and isolation of individuals displaced from their country not by choice, but necessity. 

Tim Finch is the founding director of Sponsor Refugees, Citizens UK’s community sponsorship arm. He believes volunteers are crucial to successful resettlement for a simple reason: councils can provide conscientious workers but “you can't hire friends”. 

“If you arrive as a refugee here, you know the people around you have raised the money, found a house, because they really want to,” he says. “They probably spent six months to a year working, giving up hours each week, before the family even arrived.”

According to Finch, the volunteers themselves are very different from the well-meaning-but-hopeless stereotype. “Often you'll find CEOs of charities, doctors, lawyers, specialists in mental health, and trauma,” he says. “Go in and patronise a a sponsorship group at your peril.”

One group volunteers struggle to help, however, are the unaccompanied children in Europe. While the UK government is willing to fund local authorities participating in the resettlement scheme, it has consistently blocked efforts to streamline the passage of those stranded in Greece, Dunkirk and Calais. Although campaigners succeeded in forcing the government’s hand through the Dubs Amendment, the government halted the scheme when only 350 children had been brought to safety.

In October, after a long-running court battle by Help Refugees, a charity, the Court of Appeal finally ruled that the reason some children were rejected was “patently inadequate”. However, campaigners are likely to face further court wrangles before any more children can be brought over.

Nour says the refugees in Milton Keynes are integrating well, with the early arrivals now helping to prepare for later ones. “Our families in Milton Keynes, they recognise there is a cultural differences they are not trying to force their traditions on their surroundings,” she says. “We still see some stuff, like, for example, they wouldn’t be very happy for their daughters to go to swimming classes, but at the same time they are trying to be open minded.” For her, the crucial obstacle is the language barrier, and the isolation this can bring. In Milton Keynes, local involvement was once again crucial: “So many nice volunteers offered to teach them English or be their buddy family.” The families are also enrolled in English classes.

As for the housing crisis, Nour points out that all the homes are sourced through private landlords. “Where they say ‘we don’t want them taking their houses’, they are not, actually. They are renting just like me.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 65 million displaced people (the entire population of Britain), of which 17 million are refugees and 1.2 million in need of resettlement. In 2016, 126,291 refugees were resettled, but in 2017 the number dropped to 65,109. Worryingly, for those on the waiting list, the decline is likely due to the changing policy of the United States, which has previously taken in the bulk of resettled refugees worldwide.

This of course makes the need for other countries to step up all the more urgent. Nour would like to see the resettlement scheme continued after 2020. According to Citizens UK, which is campaigning for the extension, almost all councils in Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire and the Humber have participated, but just 45 per cent in the East of England, with similar figures for the North East, South East and East Midlands (by contrast, there are clusters of community sponsorship groups in the South West and Devon, south west Wales, and London, but less in Scotland and Yorkshire). 

As for her, as the war drags on in Syria, her motivation hasn’t changed.

“There is not one day that doesn’t go past when I don’t feel guilty,” she says. “I know the situation is a bit better in Damascus but not a single day goes by without me feeling, first of all, I am not doing enough, and secondly, it is not fair that I have a normal life and they don’t.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.