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.