Refugee week: providing more than bricks and mortar

By Lourdes Debarry | 21 June 2022

With 188 languages spoken in the borough, Hounslow has always prided itself on being a borough rich in diversity – encompassing a multitude of religions, cultures and languages.

Back in 2015, with war raging in Syria, we pledged our steadfast support to refugees from the country – pledging to welcome ten Syrian families.

However, as the director of housing, I was really keen to provide more than roofs over heads. Working closely with local community partners, we ensured that the refugees had the tools and resources to rebuild their lives – making them proud residents of Hounslow.

For example, Ghaith arrived in Hounslow in his early twenties. After expressing his interest in studying the media, Ghaith was accepted on to a media course at the University of West London. Next year, he will graduate from the university – setting him on the path to a promising career as a producer.

Other refugees simply wanted the basics to support their family. Rasha, a mother-of-two and carer to her husband, requested help in learning to drive. We helped organise her theory test and she successfully passed her test after a year. This milestone, though may seem small to some, is huge for Rasha and her family.

Many of the children we supported were traumatised by the conflict. For Yaser, football proved his sanctuary. Through our strong community partnerships, we arranged for him to attend football sessions in the local area in his quest to become the next Peter Schmeichel! We also arranged a visit to a QPR game with Yaser where he met all the QPR players personally. Such activities are fundamental in ensuring refugee children foster strong community connections.

These are real examples of how refugees enhance communities and have a positive impact - making it a win-win formula not only for the refugees but the local communities they live in.

Yet these success stories wouldn’t be possible without our community partners ‘Refugees Welcome Hounslow’.  The group makes a significant contribution to the resettlement process by gaining trust and establishing rapport with refugees, which can often be difficult for local authorities to achieve. I was keen to harness the group’s strong community links for the benefit of the refugees arriving.

In practical terms, and from the very start of the resettlement journey, we worked with Refugee Welcome Hounslow in collecting refugees from the airport, going with them to their new accommodation, helping them settle into the neighbourhood, assisting with school admissions or employment and apprenticeships, as well as traveling with them on public transport to help them familiarise with the different systems.

Beyond the initial intensive support provided to the families in their first year of arrival, some other ways Refugees Welcome Hounslow has helped them integrate into the community and reach their potential include:

  • Improving their English language skills.
  • Applying for travel documents.
  • Socialising with others by organising outings. For example, attending a pantomime at a local arts centre.

Our model of resettling refugees works because our overall ambition is to make these refugees proud residents of Hounslow.

We are keen to replicate this model with the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) and Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. We have already welcomed three Afghan families to the borough and recently worked with the Islamic Integration Centre in Hounslow to host a ‘welcome lunch’ for the Afghan families.

In my role as Director of Housing at Hounslow Council, I am often juggling multiple tasks and challenges. However, seeing the tangible difference we have made to the lives of Rasha, Ghaith and Yaser makes this job so worthwhile.

The world is fast changing, people are fleeing the effects of climate change, poverty, persecution and war. All they want what is what we all want: a safe place to call home.  People seeking asylum and refugee status are our neighbours, friends, and family – and when someone in our community needs us, we are there to help, we all pitch in and we come proudly together as one community.

Lourdes Debarry is director of housing at Hounslow LBC

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