Dedicated team helps refugees feel at home in Ipswich

A local clergy member describes how the church has been supporting resettled refugees in Ipswich at a meeting with Suffolk Refugee Support.
© UNHCR/Kim Nelson

Suffolk Refugee Support, a charity, works closely with local authority to offer resettled refugees a brighter future in eastern England

IPSWICH, England - Abed and Ghaydaa, a Syrian refugee couple with three children, have been sharing their horticultural skills at a local allotment in Ipswich, in eastern England.

They are two of around 100 refugees who have re-started here since public sector partners agreed to resettle refugees, who were forced to flee the Syrian conflict, under the UK’s largest such programme, the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).

While they learn English to improve their employment chances, they have been embraced by a local charity, ActivLives, which runs a community garden, and they offer fellow members their horticultural knowledge -- like slicing open a potato before planting it, and Syrian tree-pruning techniques. In return, they pick up useful English phrases, take home the odd basket of fresh produce and learn a bit more about their new home.

“Life in Ipswich is very busy, but very beautiful. I love it a lot,” Ghaydaa, who arrived in late 2016, told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “The gardens are good for us and for our health. We go every week, even in winter, unless it rains.”

"Ipswich is better than where I used to live. It feels like home now. I can mess around with my mates. I know every road in town."

Ipswich has for some time been a “dispersal area,” where asylum seekers have been housed away from large cities. Even before the VPRS, launched in 2015, Ipswich hosted an active Iraqi Kurdish community and a number of asylum seekers and refugees. Now, public partners, co-ordinated by Suffolk County Council, have committed to support up to 230 individuals to 2020 under VPRS and a parallel programme for children and their families, the Vulnerable Children's Resettlement Scheme (VCRS).

To help the newcomers settle, the charity Suffolk Refugee Support (SRS), with nearly 20 years’ experience helping refugees rebuild, was commissioned to support the new arrivals from orientation to interpreting, finding accommodation, opening bank accounts, navigating health services, enrolling in education and language courses or applying for jobs and volunteering.

Dilbreen (left) and Shireen, brother and sister, arrived in Ipswich in 2016 from Syria via Iraq. Shireen is working in a pharmacy and Dilbreen is studying English.  © Kim Nelson/UNHCR

Some of these aspects of local life might appear irksome to locals but can be baffling for new arrivals lacking confidence and language skills. SRS’s interventions are tailored to the needs of each family, based on their history. The small resettlement team supports 101 individuals in 22 family groups in Ipswich.

“It takes time for them to trust us,” said Susannah Kennedy, SRS’s Resettlement Programme Coordinator. “They have such high expectations of us – we are often the only smiling faces they’ve seen in a while – and the reality can be more mundane.”

SRS also draws in the community through a network of voluntary ‘befrienders,’ who help families from picking them up at the airport on arrival to helping with homework, cooking, attending sports and cultural events or sewing costumes for school plays.

“For people who are disorientated there’s a lot to take in,” Kennedy said. “How much information should we give and how much will they take in at first? It’s a balance.”

For the refugees, integrating can be daunting, often more so for older arrivals than youngsters, who have the outlet of school and can make friends and practise English naturally. Conversely, children can be protective of their parents, and that can hinder older refugees getting out and about, although each family adapts differently.

“Language is the main barrier to integration and friendships. After that, it happens organically,” the SRS coordinator said.

The main hope is that the resettled refugees will find work, which fosters a sense of self-worth and dignity, and some here have already found paid or voluntary positions.

Suffolk Refugee Support staff at their office in Ipswich. The team works with resettled refugees in the town in the county of Suffolk, eastern England.  © UNHCR/Kim Nelson

One positive example is Shireen, 21, who loves her assistant job at a chemist. She aims to become a pharmacist after training. “I feel I’m doing something. I can give my mum money and I have some independence. I also feel I’m giving to society,” she said at SRS’s cramped offices above a launderette in Ipswich. She is slotting in with her co-workers, chatting about her culture and learning to natter about colleagues’ holidays or talk about the weather and local events with customers.

For her brother, Dilbreen, 30, adapting has been harder. For health reasons and to provide for the family, he dropped out of school in Syria to become a tailor, which he continued in Iraq, where the family fled before arriving via Turkey. “It’s like being a child all over, learning things from scratch,” he said. “I used to work all the time and support the family but I can’t do that here yet.” He is studying English, volunteering and has found piecemeal tailoring work. He hopes to open a haberdashery.

The Suffolk team focus on Ipswich, which hosts most of the county’s refugees. There has been some interest from smaller towns, communities and church groups in supporting refugees under the Government’s Community Sponsorship programme. But with resources, experienced service providers and the population concentrated in Ipswich, the focus remains there for now.

Allison Coleman, Suffolk County Council’s Lead for Equalities and Inclusion, manages the resettlement programmes including allocating Home Office funds, which are used to cover current costs.

Ipswich is the largest town in Suffolk in eastern England. In May and June 2018 the waterfront area of the town hosted UNHCR's Great British Welcome exhibition on hosting refugees.  © UNHCR/Kim Nelson

“We’re always juggling,” she said, referring to social care, education, language training and health, as well as contracts for those services.

Asked what the biggest challenge has been, she replied: “housing, housing, housing.” Suffolk has skirted this, for now, with the help of a local housing charity, Anglia Care Trust, which builds relationships with landlords to offer properties for the programme and support refugees’ tenancy agreements.

Meantime, Abed and Ghaydaa’s son, Bassel, 17, feels -- at last -- that he can be a teenager again. He is volunteering at SRS and the local fire prevention team. “Ipswich is better than where I used to live. It feels like home now. I can mess around with my mates. I know every road in town.”