From Syria to Scotland: Refugees in Moray are being welcomed with open arms

Moray residents welcoming Syrian refugees [Photo: Heralds Scotland]

In a week where Amnesty International said the UK must do more to help refugees, Nafees Mahmud writes how members of Moray’s Community Planning Partnership are helping vulnerable Syrians settle into the area. 

Our hearts were again shattered last week. The sight of five-year-old dust and blood covered Omran Daqneesh, alone in an ambulance – confused and distraught by the airstrike in Aleppo he’d just survived- reminded us no matter how embroiled we may be in our own struggles to pay the rent, or obsessed with getting stratospheric likes for our holiday selfies- we feel the pain of strangers more keenly than we imagine; our attachment to each other as human beings is more profound than our daily perceptions and experiences reveal; no matter the geographic, ethnic or religious distance between us.

This week Amnesty International said the UK government is not doing enough to resettle Syrian refugees, and should increase the pace and capacity for doing so. Less than 2,000 have been taken in across the country so far, and the Home Affairs Select Committee believes there is little evidence the target of 20,000 resettled by 2020 will be met, as proposed by the government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS).

But some people are pushing beyond their call of duty.

Scotland has so far taken in more Syrians than any other part of the UK. I recently met with members of the Community Planning Partnership (CPP) in Moray, 60 miles north west of Aberdeen. I spoke to Katy O’ Connor of the charity Moray Supports Refugees (MSR), and Laurence Findlay and John Ferguson of Moray Council. They shared how they are helping four Syrian families settle into the small town of Forres under the Scottish Government’s commitment to accept 2,000 of the overall 20,000 VPRS target.

Community Support

Katy told me how MSR was set up with the support of local volunteers.

Volunteers met in Elgin to discuss how to help Syrian refugees coming to Moray.
Volunteers met in Elgin to discuss how to help Syrian refugees coming to Moray.

“Basically, when we heard that Moray was taking in refugees we had a meeting at Elgin Town Hall and loads of people turned up. We formed a group, that’s now been constituted and we’ve launched it, and we’re becoming a charity.”

She went on to explain the role of the local community in sustaining the project: “The support from the community has just been overwhelming. We’ve had music concerts to raise money, we’ve had kids at schools doing stuff, and the amount of donations we’ve had; we’ve had backlogs of it and that’s been quite revealing. The community have come together.”

When asked why she wanted to help vulnerable Syrians, she reflected: “To be perfectly honest it could be you or I. I could be fleeing; I’ve got children. I could be fleeing from Scotland. It’s a human thing. I wanted to help people who have got nothing and give them something and I feel very able to do that, and to do it with no judgement and just to help as much as we can.”

She has recently returned from the Greek island of Chios where she and Shuna Dicks, also of MSR, spent a week working in a people’s street kitchen preparing food for up to 1,500 refugees. “We’d go and visit the refugees and it was heartbreaking. You’d have two families, up to 11 or 12 people in a container. It was 40 degrees, no air conditioning, no fans. One of the saddest things was when you ran out of food. You still have queues of people and you are unable to feed them. I think one of the most inspiring things, we thought, was being there gave them hope.”

Gratitude

Moray is one of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas with a population of over 90,000. So far, all Syrian refugees resettled in the area have been housed in Forres, which has a population of 12,000, as a result of a matching service that ensured their property, educational and health needs, amongst other things would be met.

John Ferguson told me of one disturbing problem faced during the process. “We actually had one family with health issues that could not be matched in Moray so went somewhere where they had access to a major hospital. That was quite upsetting, but I was reassured by the Home Office the family had been taken care of the day after I said, ‘sorry we can’t take them.’”

When asked how the refugees are settling in, Laurence explained: “There was a great feeling of gratitude that came from them. Meeting them has been very much a humbling experience for me. I was there asking for all their concerns and queries. I was bowled over by their level of gratitude. They were just very happy to be here. An overriding sense of humility. They certainly feel they’ve had a warm welcome, people have been speaking to them in the streets and in Tesco’s, wherever they’ve been out and about.”

He told me the nearby internationally renowned eco-village, Findhorn Foundation, has helped welcome Moray’s new citizens.

“One of the small touches that was really nice was when they arrived in their houses their cupboards had been stocked with various spices and so on that they didn’t expect to get in Scotland. Obviously there are a lot of connections with the Findhorn Foundation which is used to quite an itinerant population from all over the world; many different cultures using the Foundation- they managed to rally together and get these provisions which I thought really set the tone for them settling into Forres.”

Religious Needs

The refugees are all Sunni Muslims. I asked how their religious needs are being met. John confirmed: “The mosque in Elgin has been in contact and the local Islamic society have been involved in MSR. There are one or two refugees who have made good contact with the mosque- have been attending- and others are less devout so don’t necessarily want to go to the mosque but during Ramadan there was quite a lot of activity going on.”

Unfortunately, there are no halal butchers in Forres. The nearest is in Inverness, 30 miles away, which could pose dietary problems.

Media Coverage

When talking of the response Moray’s newest citizens have been getting from the locals, I asked if the national media, criticised for often demonising refugees, had a negative affect.

Laurence pondered, then smiled. He told me people in Moray prefer local newspapers to nationals and that has “protected us a wee bit.” Local titles such as the Northern Scot, Press & Journal and Forres Gazette have all reported responsibly.

He said: “The Forres Gazette, probably doesn’t have the biggest circulation but has quite an influence in the area. I think if people are picking up these good vibes from that, I think that will have an impact on the community. So certainly nothing has been brought to my attention that has brought any alarm or concern.

“Certainly talking to one girl who is going into Primary 7, quite a tricky age for youngsters, she was certainly very positive about how she’d settled into school and the welcome she’d received from her other classmates and friends and teachers. So very positive I would say on the whole.”

Stories from Chios

Laurence, John and Katy told me the Syrians are optimistic about the future and have not discussed the horrendous situations they’ve been rescued from.

Moray volunteers sorting donations for Syrian refugees.
Moray volunteers sorting donations for Syrian refugees.

Katy shares some stories, though, about what she experienced in the refugee camp in Chios.

“We decided to go there because we’ve had a container sent out to Chios so we thought they’d be a link there. There was one man, he was 22, he left his mother and aunties there (Syria) but he knew they’d be safe because they were older.

“He was of prime age. He knew if he had stayed he’d have been recruited. He had actually completed two years of a university degree. It wasn’t safe for him to stay anymore so he came over. All he wants to do is finish his degree and he doesn’t know where he’s going to be, or anything; he’s got no money.

“A lot of them have got no money at all because the little money they did have they’ve paid to supplement their diets since they’ve been in Greece.”

She says the refugees displayed admirable altruism, despite their desperate condition: “They had nothing but they wanted to give us everything they had. Dates would be allocated to them once a week, or once a fortnight because of the costs, but they would be offering us their dates, and tea.

“Despite facing all the adversity, one particular woman I can think of, she had three children, her husband was sick, she was a young woman, and despite that she was still smiling. She gave me a warm hug, offered me tea and was still hopeful because people like us, volunteers, were going to help; the human spirit was still present and there was hope for her and her family.”

Staying in Moray

Returning to the Moray’s newest and warmly welcomed citizens, I asked my interviewees on a closing note, to share what the north of Scotland can offer these families in the long term, different to major cities like Glasgow and London, which may take their fancy in coming years. Katy responded: “I think one of the biggest things that has come out is the community. They feel the strength of home, the strength of community and support from a wide range and level of people. The diversity has come together.”

(L to R) Laurence Findlay, John Ferguson & Katy O' Connor of Moray Community Planning Partnership.
(L to R) Laurence Findlay, John Ferguson & Katy O’ Connor of Moray Community Planning Partnership.

Laurence added: “Forres has a tradition of being a very welcoming place. It’s been used to having a lot of people coming and going with the former RAF site and the army barracks. I used to be a head teacher there so I know the community well. There is quite a transient population.

“It’s also got the Findhorn Foundation which is quite a significant place which does fantastic work which attracts people from all over the world from all cultures with different beliefs. So Forres, for this wee town in the north of Scotland, is actually quite a cosmopolitan place I would say. I just think there is a mix there that really works. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it works.”

Knowing the serenity and warmth (in, of course, the non-climatic sense) of northern Scotland personally, I am certain it will continue to work and provide the perfect place for some of the world’s most vulnerable people to build new, meaningful and fruitful lives.

No Loch Ness monster in sight, and no xenophobic monsters either.

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