Refugee family: ‘Scotland is our second home’
Basma Hamadeh has just dropped three of her four children at school in Edinburgh and is trying to calm 18-month-old Abbas, who is in need of a nap.
“The children are very settled, they feel at home in Scotland,” explains the 34-year-old from Homs, Syria.
The family moved here a year ago, funded to relocate from their temporary home in the north of Lebanon by Scotland’s first community sponsorship group.
Refugee Sponsorship Edinburgh was formed by a group of friends and acquaintances who spent two-and-a-half years forming support plans, raising thousands of pounds in funding and finding and furnishing a flat for a refugee family - the first to settle in Scotland under the Home Office’s community refugee sponsorship programme.
The family - Ms Hamadeh’s husband, Azzam al Hussein, daughters Aisha, ten, Hoda, 9, and Fatima, 5, as well as baby Abbas - fled Syria during the civil war that has devastated the country for the past decade.
“The situation during the war in Syria was very very hard,” Ms Hamadeh explains. “There was bombing everywhere and every day. When people died, we were unable to bury the bodies. We often had no food, no bread, no water, so life was really hard during that time.”
They fled Syria after Mr al Hussein was badly injured by a bomb.
“He was travelling to pick up his brother’s family, to live with us because their house had been destroyed. On the way, he got injured by a bombing.”
Unable to obtain emergency medical treatment in Homs, his injuries were largely untreated. Since arriving in Scotland, he has had medication and surgery to help improve his health, including nerve damage in his back and leg. He also suffers from severe migraines as a result of the bombing.
“I feel bad because I am not yet able to work,” says Mr al Hussein, a former fruit farmer in Syria.
The family fled to Lebanon, where they lived for five years until they received a call from the local United Nations office.
“They told us that there was an opportunity to live in Scotland. We knew nothing about Scotland,” says Mr al Hussein.
His wife remembers breaking the news to their children, including Aisha, who was nine at the time of the move and understood the implications more than her younger siblings.
“My daughter, Aisha, wasn’t as excited, she said she was going to miss her granny, who had come with us from Syria to Lebanon,” says Ms Hamadeh.
“Especially in the beginning, we missed our family a lot. Everything was new, the culture was so different. But slowly, we began to get used to everything in Scotland.”
The sponsorship programme allows small groups of ordinary people to apply to fund and host refugees from Syria as part of the UK government’s pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees. Under Home Office regulations, the group had to raise at least £4,500 per adult, but managed to raise far more.
Their responsibilities range from offering practical support, such as helping them find local supermarkets, to offering friendship and a link to a social life in their new home.
“We could not have managed without the group,” says Ms Hamadeh. “They were very supportive from day one. They were waiting for us at the airport, they had found us a place to live and helped us to register the kids at school.
“They also helped my husband to be seen by specialist doctors and have helped us with transport to get to hospital appointments. Some of the families have become real friends.”
Erica Brooks is one of the dozen members of the group which worked to bring the family to Scotland. It is still the only Scottish group which has successfully brought a family to the UK, with others hampered by the coronavirus lockdown. Led by the Scottish Refugee Council, a recruitment event to give information to people considering forming a sponsorship group is being held online on 2 November.
Ms Brooks remembers the day the family arrived at Edinburgh Airport.
“It was surreal and exciting,” she says. “They are such lovely people, it was a pleasure to meet them.
"But it is strange, you go from all this paperwork and planning to dealing with actual people. At the beginning, they were just bombarded with so much important information, it was overwhelming at first – from bills to meetings to registering with the doctor or the bank. Everything is so different here for them, it was a lot.”
However, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, in-person support had to be stopped. Face-to-face meetings were replaced with befriending sessions online, where group members helped the family with English lessons and read stories to the children.
"It is really sobering, watching them go through the whole process,” says Ms Brooks. “We couldn’t take the struggle away from them, we could only support them through it.”
A year on, the family are settled. However, having spent their lives in the warm climates of the Middle East, they are still getting used to the Scottish weather.
“When we arrived, it was summer, so we had thought it would be fine,” says Mr al Hussein. “Then when we stepped off the plane, it was freezing. Now we know whatever time of the year is it, we don’t leave the house without a jacket and an umbrella.”
Over the past year, the children have learned English quickly and are enjoying playing sport and music and making friends at their new school.
“Now, the children would love to settle in Scotland,” says Ms Hamadeh.
“If we ask them if they ever want to move back to Syria, they say no. We would love that everything would return to peace in Syria. If that happened, we would visit our family there, but we would prefer to settle in Scotland, we find everything here: peace, education. Scotland became our second home.”
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