Photo by Tammy Leach Photography
Herts Welcomes Syrian Families was thrilled to win runner-up in the Social Justice category at the 23rd Annual High Sheriff Awards. Will Hobhouse, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, presented the awards at Micklefield Hall, to honour volunteering around the county.
One of the aims of High Sheriffs in England and Wales is to encourage social cohesion through the work of voluntary agencies. The financial awards come entirely from the High Sheriff's own pocket, and not from the public purse.
Irene Austin, chair of HWSF, commented: "We are so honoured to have been recognised by the High Sheriff and wish to thank everyone whose hard work has made this possible. We will be consulting with the families about how best to make use of the money."
Are you an ESOL volunteer or befriender - or are you hoping to be one in the future? Come along to a training session on 20th March:
HWSF ESOL Training Session
Getting to know your learner, building on their skills and exploiting resources.
Tuesday 20th March
7.15 pm for 7.30 pm until 9.15pm
Seventh Day Adventist Church
St Peter's Road, St Albans AL1 3EL
RSVP by Friday 16th March to: email@example.com
On an overcast February morning, a group of refugees arrange tables and chairs to create a makeshift classroom in a Hertfordshire community centre. They have gathered, along with five volunteers, to practise their English.
After a quick greeting of ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum', their teacher announces that they will be practising the words for the body, and leads them through a cheerful rendition of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” A second group with more advanced English skills works at the back of the room with a volunteer who has brought in questions from the UK driving theory test so that they can build up vocabulary while also preparing for the practicalities of driving.
The two hour lesson involves writing, reading aloud, and practising oral expression using puzzles and games. Volunteers sit amongst the learners, helping and encouraging with each new challenge. A young toddler plays with coloured pencils and listens as his parents practice saying ‘eyes’ and ‘elbows.’
Learning language skills is a crucial part of adjusting to life in a new country; being able to communicate and advocate for oneself can open doors and help to heal trauma. HWSF has been working to create a network of volunteers who can assist resettled refugees with their English language skills throughout Hertfordshire. If you think you might be interested in volunteering, please get in touch with our new ESOL Volunteer Coordinator, Caroline Herring, e-mail: Carolineherring52@gmail.com
On a frozen night in Hertfordshire, a young Syrian woman wearing a sparkly pink headscarf stood before a large crowd of HWSF members and recounted how her neighbourhood in the suburbs of Damascus was transformed from a peaceful locale known for its population of well-educated people to a place where she feared for her life and that of her children. Forced to flee to Lebanon after a rocket hit her building, she witnessed the burning of a Syrian refugee camp by Lebanese militia before eventually succeeding in bringing her family to England - to Hertfordshire - where she has lived for the past seven months. “My children are in a safe place,” she said. “They have a good school and a better education.”
Members of Herts Welcomes Syrian Families, who gathered for their annual general meeting on 28th February, were visibly moved as the resettled Syrians, whom they have been working to support, bore witness to the escalating violence they experienced during the Syrian Civil War. A talented young Syrian photojournalist, now studying at the University of Hertfordshire, recalled how he’d needed to hide from soldiers after the war began: his grandmother hid him the first time, and later he’d sheltered in the loft while his brother was arrested.
Then there was the story of a Syrian father who was tortured after his son escaped from the army. His son had not wanted to shoot the peaceful protestors opposing Assad and so had shot himself in the leg, was sent to prison, and later fled the country after being forced back into the military. The family’s home was burned as a result and the father continues to suffer health problems from the torture he endured.
Members also heard from the young Syrian artist who designed HWSF’s highly successful Christmas cards. She had always wanted to be an artist but was unable to complete her studies in fine arts. She described her ambition to continue making art in England while slides of her portraits and still lifes appeared on screen.
Over the past year, Herts Welcomes Syrian Families has continued to support thirty-five refugee families across Hertfordshire with welcome meals and events, financial and practical support, and by providing bicycles, TVs, furniture, and friendship. Irene Austin, chair of HWSF, felt that one of the successes of the organisation’s work with the British Refugee Council has been in encouraging and helping resettled Syrian families to support each other. With more families coming soon, having an established network of Syrian people who can help these newcomers to navigate their new lives in the UK will be an invaluable resource.
Irene laid out an ambitious plan for HWSF for the coming year. The organisation’s priorities include establishing a vibrant language support network and a volunteer driver scheme, as well as focusing on finding organisations and people able to offer employment opportunities to refugees. Another goal was to increase the involvement of the Syrian families in the management of HWSF. As she pointed out, a year ago very few Syrians were present at the AGM, but this year, even on a snowy night, a number were there, speaking, listening, engaging, and supporting one another in a country that they were beginning to call home.