The first 10 families were followed in February by 5 more and recently some relatives have been able to join their families under the reunification programme.
I’m one of the volunteers who have sought to support our new residents. It’s been a fascinating and at times challenging experience. There was a huge response to Argyll & Bute Council’s appeal for volunteers. We were asked to staff a pop-up community centre where the families could meet each other and be contacted by the various supporting agencies. St Andrews RC church here in Rothesay offered the use of their hall. This proved invaluable as a meeting place and for the distribution of the generous donations which flooded in.
The experience has been and continues to be a big learning curve for the statutory agencies and for the volunteers. Intent on preparing as best we could by learning about the culture of the Syrians, we quickly realised - what is obvious when you think about it - that our new arrivals did not constitute a homogeneous group. Encouraged not to offer a handshake to the men for example, we found that some cheerfully offered their hand. On matters religious, some are more secular, some more observing.
A few arrived with good English, some with a little, most with none at all. What a challenge when you need to learn even the alphabet! I found it hard to see someone who had run a business in his own country struggling to write his name in an unfamiliar alphabet and working across the page from left to right.
We could only surmise what horrors they might have experienced. Some have spoken about it, some not. What we can know both from the news and from their own accounts is that they live with constant worry about the fate of those left behind. But there is good news too. Already four babies have been born to the families, a wonderful sign of new life. One father proudly declared that his baby daughter was a Scottish Syrian.
Most are settling remarkably well, one or two in employment, some in training and some volunteering for community projects. Some families, inevitably, have struggled. So too have the volunteers at times! On an island such as ours, there isn’t an existing refugee support organisation so our volunteers are gathered from scratch without the framework of an existing agency.
Communication is an ongoing challenge, even with improving language skills. After the drop-in centre closed, some of us have continued working with the families, particularly in the area of language support and befriending. Currently a new cohort of volunteers is being trained.
The local community has been welcoming on the whole but there have been some instances of hostility. It is easy to criticise those we may be tempted to label as racist or xenophobic. What this experience has taught me is that so-called ‘liberal’ attitudes and indeed a Christian theology of inclusiveness should not preclude an honest acknowledgement of the challenges that being ‘inclusive’ brings. If we are not able to say ‘this is difficult’ or ‘I don’t agree with such and such a cultural practice’, then either we retreat from debate or we speak in bland terms that slide over the real challenges of cultural diversity.