Supporting Syrian Refugees – A Tale of Two Schemes…

As of August 2017 the United Nations Refugee Agency has registered 5,165,502 Syrian refugees.

Our church has asked a simple question: how can we be a blessing to these traumatised and displaced people?

There is a little team of 14 church members who have tried to answer that question. They have discovered that finding an answer is not easy… and that you must have an ability to grasp a dizzying number of acronyms and initialisms. None-the-less, after many meetings and consultations, a possible answer does seem to be emerging from the ‘bureaucratic mist’.

To begin with, all of our investigations focused on becoming part of the new Community Sponsorship scheme (CS). However, after meeting with a member of the Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign (CRRC), we were asked to consider supporting the existing work of Cambridge City Council. The Syrian Vulnerable People Resettlement scheme (SVPR) was an early government initiative, taken on in an excellent manner by the Council. SVPR is already up and running in Cambridge. Furthermore, the Council’s implementation of the SVPR scheme is regarded nationally as an outstanding example of how it should be done. The Council committed to house and support 100 refugees by 2020. At the time of writing this article 58 refugees have been welcomed.

Armed with this encouraging news, two members of our team met with Council representatives at the end of June. These representatives welcomed the idea of support from our church. They shared lots of information and, like the CRRC, suggested we take a closer look at SVPR involvement. Here’s some of what we learned:

  • The Home Office requires SVPR councils to pay for the furnishing of homes to a required minimum specification. This costs £4500 on average. At the end of the tenancy, everything in the house is considered to be the property of the family. Properties are usually given and returned unfurnished. This council provision of furnishings represents a significant saving for organisations signing up to SVPR.

  • The SVPR officials collect the refugees from the airport. They specifically request that there be no welcome party, press coverage, etc. to minimise the distress of arriving in a new country.

  • The SVPR sorts out all schools, medical, dental and benefits requirements; it also liaises with the Department for Work and Pensions

  • There is provision of initial language tuition of 8-10 hours per week (for our church, this would be offered by Cambridge Regional College). In addition, translation services are provided for every appointment (several SVPR employees are bi-lingual).

  • Cultural Awareness Training – what do the refugees know about the UK? What do we know about life in Syria? The SVPR arranges appropriate cultural awareness training for all. We need an awareness of attitudinal differences between our cultures; to give just one example: the stigma attached to all mental health issues. Some Syrians will have little idea of where the UK is. Some refugees are bedouin and have no concept of things such as bank accounts, etc.

The experience of the Council representatives is that only participants in the SVPR get access to this vast amount of support. The professional standard of SVPR seems to be very high. One of the church team commented that the meeting made him think of the opening verses of Isaiah 40: highways seem to be being straightened; mountains and hills made low.

But is our question being answered? How can we be a blessing to these traumatised and displaced people? Is the extent of our help reduced to handing over some keys and taking a reduction in property income (down to £750 per calendar month) for 3-5 years?

Far from it! Consider just some of ways in which we would be working alongside the SVPR:

  • Gifts – the Home Office considers certain items to be ‘luxury’ items and so they are not included in the £4500 offered to furnish the home/prepare the family. These luxury items include: a television, bicycles, garden furniture, tools, children’s toys, books, clothes. This is an area where the church can provide support by donating these items.

  • Befriending – the bi-lingual team focus their time on the new arrivals. Resources are swiftly redirected after a family has settled in. For this reason, church support and friendship is crucial from arrival and especially after the initial period of orientation has expired. ‘Befrienders’ do not need a DBS check. Safeguarding needs are addressed, but in a very simple way with the SVPR scheme. Befriending could extend beyond an allocated family. A close initial friendship might well offer opportunities to assist and support other members of the refugee community.

  • Social opportunities – the refugee families are encouraged to meet and make friends with folks in an unpressurised environment – for example, a large lunch gathering. They are gently asked which of the people they’d like to meet again. Friendships are built in a way that empowers the family to choose who they are friends with and in what context. A measure of control is very important to a refugee family.

  • Childcare – this is especially important, as it allows parents to attend language classes and search for employment. Childcare for one family might become a small creche for several families.

  • Language supportconversational practice, reading together.

  • Employment skills – the SVPR do not have the capacity to spend large amounts of time developing or adapting people’s skills. Practical help in this area might include CV writing, offering work experience, etc.

  • Appointments – accompanying refugees to various appointments and helping them to understand what’s to be expected. This is a natural extension of the befriending role, but with a little more formal structure required.

  • Building independence – several months after arrival the church would need to take great care to support and communicate with the family as SVPR involvement is steadily reduced. Are the family really coping? Are there any needs that have been left unaddressed? After treading very carefully at the start of the process, most supporters of the scheme find their involvement increases as time goes on. Interestingly, it’s the opposite of what we would normally do: to be excited initially and for our enthusiasm to wane!

It’s a lot to pray about.

As we receive a good answer to our, ‘how’ question, another question immediately takes its place: shall we choose to be a blessing to these traumatised and displaced people?

Leviticus 19:34.

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