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Volunteering to Help Syrian Refugees

Sometime last Autumn I noticed an article in the Sevenoaks Chronicle asking for people to help a Syrian family settle in New Ash Green.  I phoned the number and was invited to meet somebody from the charity Sevenoaks Welcomes Refugees.  I was asked if I wanted to join the fund-raising team or the family support team. I definitely wanted to be part of a family support team so then I had to have a DBS check before things could move any further. Sevenoaks Welcomes Refugees supports two Syrian families in Sevenoaks Town, one large extended family in Eynsford and one in Swanley and they were planning for another family in New Ash Green.

I met with four other people who were to form the nucleus of a support team for the New Ash Green family. I learnt that the house was ready and fully equipped but because of changes in government policy no family had so far been allocated.  Once a family moves in they are looked after by Clarion Services arranged by KCC and the support worker helps the children to access appropriate education and the adults to access English classes and to gain appropriate           employment as well as registering them with a GP and a dentist and dealing with any issues that the landlord might have. The family are asked if they would like volunteers from Sevenoaks Welcomes refugees to support them.  All this obviously takes quite a long time.

Just after Christmas I was contacted and asked if I would be willing to be part of the support group for the family in Swanley. It was thought that my previous experiences and qualifications from when I was working could be helpful with this family.  I went to a meeting of the support team to learn about this family and following that the team leader and a Turkish speaker took me to meet them.

The family comprises of a father who can speak some English and was a highly skilled shoe maker when in Syria, a mother who speaks just a little English but is very keen to learn, a 7 year old boy who attends a local school, a five year old girl who had a bone marrow transplant last October and a three year old boy who has recently started nursery.

I visit the family once a week usually on the day when the three-year-old doesn’t go to nursery and talk to the parents, play with the child, take various gifts, arrange to take the boys out for the day during school holidays etc.  For three weeks I visited twice a week while the team leader was away which was quite a big commitment for me.  The support team keep in touch via a What’s App group as well as having the occasional meeting.

Things have been particularly difficult for this family as the little girl still attends hospital for treatment twice a week by taxi with her father and they are gone all day. Although the  little girl has responded well to treatment her immune system remains low and she is therefore very vulnerable to infection which can cause her to be rushed into hospital suddenly. She can not mix with other children and remains in her bedroom wearing a mask and having a lot of daily medication.

This involvement has been a rapid learning curve for me as I had no real knowledge of the Islamic faith, and my only knowledge of Syria came from television programmes, neither did I have any real knowledge of what is involved with a bone marrow transplant.  I did not know what to say when I was shown pictures of their home in Aleppo before and after the start of fighting as it was completely devastated. 

I heard their poignant account of their flight to a refugee camp in Turkey and being unsure initially what had happened to their large extended family. I have also learnt about the culture in Syria and Turkey where it is still common for girls to have arranged marriages at the age of fourteen as this mother had.  Syrian women frequent each other’s homes regularly and enjoy coffee together without extending the more formal type of           verbal invitation that we give one another. I hope I will be able to continue to support them for as long as they need me as I feel deeply privileged to be so accepted by this family that they welcome me readily into their home.

Yvonne Veal

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