Home Kent News The brilliant Sevenoaks people helping refugees settle in to a new community

The brilliant Sevenoaks people helping refugees settle in to a new community

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Original article from Kent Live

The recent history of refugees coming into Kent is fraught – one marked by controversial policies, bitter rows and disputes over basic facts.

We're often lost in an abstract conversation about buzzwords, statistical trends or hotly debated legal issues – but in this conversation, something vitally important can get lost.

That 'something' is the vulnerable refugees that come to the UK seeking shelter, safety and a new start.

Read more: 'Human lives take priority' – French government hammers new UK refugee boat ‘push-back’ policy

Fortunately, these people are not forgotten – and there are groups in our communities actively trying to rise above the noise and do something positive to help.


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There's no better example of this than Sevenoaks Welcomes Refugees (SWR).

Formed in 2015 in response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, SWR started life as little more than signatures on a petition to Sevenoaks District Council.

Co-chair Jude Thompson, co-chair of the group, said: "In 2015, our government said that they would take 20,000 refugees from Syria, with local authorities asked to sign up to take in refugees.

"But it was discovered that Sevenoaks district council was the only part of Kent, that hadn't signed up to take any refugees – and the organisation started with a petition which was successful in making Sevenoaks council decide to sign up."

In 2015, the bulk of refugees coming into Europe and the UK were from Syria amidst the fallout from Assad's regime, with the UK's Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme forming the spine of the government's official response to the exodus of people from Syria.

Those that were welcomed to Sevenoaks by SWR have all, in recent years, come via that same resettlement scheme.

Sevenoaks Welcomes Refugees have housed six refugee families – and have lined up a property for a seventh.

At the time of writing, six Syrian families have been welcomed in – and as Jude explained, they have all been in need of a welcoming new home.

She said: "They all have a vulnerability – which may or may not be obvious to us.

"But before they arrive here, we are the organisation finding the properties [for them to live in] – which is a big ask.

"We've been fortunate in finding some extremely philanthropic landlords who are prepared to house refugees at well below the market rate – and we explain that these will be good tenants."

But SWR's job doesn't end there – as it extends into doing what you'd hope any ideal community would do – by reaching out to the newly settled families to help build human connections and provide support.

Jude continued: "The way that we work is we set up a family team of all volunteers – Sevenoaks Welcomes Refugees is entirely volunteer run.

"We support the families with – well, whatever really!

"I describe it as being sort of the best possible neighbour you can be, but at the same time respecting their family life and rights to privacy.

"So it could be giving lifts, chatting over coffee, supporting children with early reading or homework – anything really.

"Another big part of our volunteer base is a team who are dedicated to teaching English."

This is vitally important – as many refugees come from countries where there is no certain point at which it would be safe to return – so many will settle in the UK for the foreseeable future, and perhaps even permanently.

The scheme has been a huge success locally too – with the six resettled families now at home in Sevenoaks and being well supported and welcomed by their new communities.

Jude continued: "We have built great relationships – we're well supported by local churches, as well as hospitality outlets in terms of offering jobs.

One of the families welcomed into Sevenoaks by SWR

"I think I can honestly say that the families we've welcomed have not experienced any difficulties in terms of unpleasantness.

"It's a fabulous place for refugees to come and live and bring up their children; all the children who are in school are very happy and are being welcomed by their classmates.

Though the government's scheme of Syrian resettlement that SWR began to take part in is coming to an end, the recent upheaval in Afghanistan means that SWR is gearing up to support another round of vulnerable refugees, according to Ms Thompson.

She said: "We haven't got absolute clarity yet about what those schemes will look like, but there is a sense in which we don't think the way we operate will change – we'll just be welcoming families from Afghanistan.

"Our goal from here is properties, properties, properties.

"We have a lot of volunteers who are willing and anxious to get going with families, but getting the properties, convincing landlords that this is, if you like a safe situation is the gateway for us.

"We've got a seventh property coming on stream we hope – and since the Afghanistan situation has arisen we're just waiting for families."

Jude's enthusiasm and knowledge, alongside the work of SWR, speak to something deeper and more essential than bitter social media arguments or political spats that dominate our conversations about refugees.

It drives home that at the heart of this issue are human beings who need help and support – and that there are communities all over Kent and the UK very willing to extend that to them.

Jude said that though the Syrian resettlement scheme was almost over there are still more than 6 million displaced refugees in countries around Syria, like Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon.

The six families in Sevenoaks were just a small part of a wider displacement of people from their homes, communities and families – many of whom lack a home to return to.

But for those six families, the work of SWR is absolutely vital – and a shining example of what a welcoming, open community can do.

Original Article