Bed, Breakfast, and New Beginnings
Oxfordshire B&B offers warm welcome to refugees.
ABINGDON, Oxfordshire // Ramzy* looked around with some wonder. "People are very friendly here,” said the Syrian refugee who has called Oxfordshire his home since December 2015.
He was talking in one of the reception rooms of St Ethelwold’s House, Abingdon, during an open house for the local community on a recent Saturday morning. As he spoke, Ramzy was regularly interrupted by strangers eager to exchange a few words and shake hands.
“Yes,” he said after each intercession, “very nice people.”
In February 2016, the 44-year-old welder, who came to Britain as part of the UK government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, moved to Abingdon, a small market town in Oxfordshire on the banks of the River Thames and one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements.
He was one of the first of a small group of refugees – now four families -- who have been settled in South Oxfordshire. In Abingdon, he found a circle of people centred around St Ethelswold’s House eager to help and support.
St Ethelwold’s House is known locally as Abingdon’s “spiritual centre”. Part bed and breakfast, part spiritual retreat, the 14th century building has an explicit mission to offer a “place of sanctuary” and encourage “interfaith encounter and action”
Since last year, the mission has been extended to refugees, specifically those who arrived in the area from Syria through the UK government’s resettlement scheme, as well as destitute asylum seekers.
“For me it was seeing such levels of distress and feeling so helpless,” said Sue Colclough, of Host Abingdon a small refugee welcome charity operating out of St Ethelswold’s which helped Ramzy resettle to Abingdon. “It was a relief to be able to do something. I think it was a human response.”
“It was a relief to be able to do something. I think it was a human response.”
Host Abingdon and the Abingdon branch of ‘More In Common’ organised the March 11 open house -- billed as a “Communi-Tea” – in part to give locals and refugees a chance to get to know one another.
The ‘More In Common’ campaign was set up in the wake of the murder of MP Jo Cox, a friend of Emma Beacham, who helped to organise the open house event. The campaign’s aim is to encourage community cohesion by emphasising “our common humanity,” Beacham said.
“There’s been a really positive response in the community,” she said about the drop-in mornings of which there have been two this year. “People have taken the opportunity to meet refugees, and been quite emotional about encountering people who have been through this horrendous ordeal we’ve been watching on TV.”
Hamza and his young family arrived in December of 2016 and have become a familiar presence in Abingdon, not least at St Ethelwold’s, where they are warmly greeted by acquaintances and strangers alike.
“People are so friendly here,” said Hamza, 34, as his three young children played happily on a sofa next to their mother Asma, 26. The family was donated a bicycle which Hamza has adapted by attaching a trailer so he can take his children with him when he cycles around the town.
The parents – who spoke no English when they arrived -- are taking language lessons five days a week courtesy of local volunteers organised by Host Abingdon. Both were keen to practise, not least Hamza who said he had left school in Syria at age 12 to work and help pay bills for his family. “It’s hard,” he said, about studying again. “But I am determined to succeed.”
Their teacher Marion Owen, 60, is retired. She volunteers six hours a week for lessons they hold at St Ethelswold’s. “I like doing it,” she said. “What they’ve been through in Syria is deeply upsetting. You want to step in and help. And if you can, why not?”
That sentiment was echoed by Richard Smart, who teaches part-time but also volunteers to give Ramzy language lessons twice a week. “It just seemed the right thing to do,” he said.
He asked around with colleagues and students at school to see if he could rustle up a bicycle for Ramzy. He wound up with five…and a fishing rod.
"I like it here and people have been very welcoming."
Smart, 64, and Ramzy now occasionally go for a ride together along the Thames, which runs right at the end of St Ethelwold’s garden.T Teacher and student have also been fishing a few times. “Ramzy finds it hard to get his head around why we have to throw back the fish we catch,” Smart said smiling. But this burgeoning friendship does not mitigate for the loss of home.
“I lived all my life in al-Dana,” said Ramzy of his hometown in northern Syria where he lost one son to Syria’s violence before spending three years in a refugee camp in Jordan. “It’s my home. I like it here and people have been very welcoming. But if can go back, I will.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
This story is part of a series exploring the ways people across the UK are showing refugees and asylum-seekers a #GreatBritishWelcome.