BURY, England – Ged Cavanagh stands with a heavy green ball in his hands at a tenpin bowling alley, three Syrian teenagers crowding around as the screen lights up with his second strike in a row.
“Do you want me to teach you?” he asks the boys, who are torn between paying attention and launching straight in. But after a series of random scuttlings and thunderous ball runs into the gutters, the three are suddenly all ears. Adil, 17, Syed, 16, and their brother, Carim, 12*, take note of Cavanagh’s instructions, high-fiving as their scores ratchet up. Sakkar, their father, alternates strikes and misses; even their mother, Noura, takes a turn.
The family arrived in Bury, a leafy town near Manchester in August 2018, well before the pandemic arrived. Having fled the war in Syria, they’d spent seven years in Lebanon, where everyone but Carim had to work, before being resettled to Britain by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Adding to the urgency of their move was the need for medical help: Adil needed a tumour on his face removed.
Unbeknownst to them, for the past 17 months, a team of ordinary people had been preparing for their arrival, imagining and then procuring everything they’d need to build a life.
Ged, a retired IT manager, was one of the first to volunteer when Felicity Brangan, an English teacher and ex-actor, stepped forward with the idea of offering a refugee family a home.
She had begun to raise awareness of refugee issues as early as 2016, and over the following year, starting with her sister, Jacinta Yates, a group of likeminded people began to coalesce. Ged brought in his sister and brother-in-law, Jo and Tim McGuire; two other stalwarts, Denise Mallon and Nicole Lavelle-Connaughton, also stepped up.
When the government set up its Community Sponsorship programme, which encourages faith groups, businesses and other local groups to help refugee families integrate, Brangan saw a framework that might assist them.
Backed by six volunteers, Felicity approached her local church in March 2017. At St. Michael’s and St. Bernadette’s in Whitefield, she spoke at mass, then organised a second awareness drive. School children did presentations about Syria; there were sponsored swims and raffles; and a stirring speech by Sean Ryan, an official at Caritas – the charity that agreed to back them – brought volunteers and donations to their cause.
Soon Felicity’s team expanded to 16 dedicated members, with 30 others volunteering skills and time. Ged kept the group to its deadlines by posting schedules online. With some experience of finance, Tim acted as treasurer as they sought to raise the £9,000 required by the Home Office. “Over 300 individuals contributed financially,” Tim said. Thirty people set up standing orders; they received help from an anonymous donor, and 200 envelopes arrived from collections in church.
“The money just came in,” said Felicity. “We got £9,000 in eight months.”
Marshalled into four groups in addition to finance – housing, education, welfare and benefits, and employment – the volunteers went to work. Olive Duddy, a retired doctor, and her husband Tom, a former headmaster, began searching for a home for their unknown Syrians, and canvassed housing associations.
Caroline Malkin, an English teacher, and her husband Chris went looking for schools. Soon they realised that they would only be able to sponsor a family with older children; the primary schools had no places left. Ged mastered the intricacies of the benefit system on behalf of their mystery family, while Tim made contact with a community in nearby Flixton, and others in Ottawa, Canada, that had also welcomed Syrian refugees.
Assistance came in macro and micro form. Once the house was secured, it needed redecorating and furnishing; worker bees stepped forward to fulfil those roles. Grass was planted and a garden laid, complete with beds for vegetables; a nearby community garden also threw open its doors. In August 2018, the family landed from Beirut via Istanbul – five members with one suitcase each.
A welcoming committee was waiting at Manchester airport with a mini-van, and another at the house they’d equipped with everything from bunk beds to spices. Some members of the team were nervous; others, like Caroline Malkin, were excited. “It was what we’d all been working for,” she said.
Sakkar, who is still learning English, is impressed by the help they have received after all the years of struggle in Beiruit. “In Lebanon, you have to help yourself, only,” he said. As for the community in Bury: “They are like family now.”
Felicity is also heartened by the responses of strangers who were not even directly involved. “People here feel a responsibility,” she said. “The other day, one of our members was asked ‘How’s our family?’ when she was standing at the checkout till.”
Like everyone else in the area, the family and group have been adapting to lockdown. Sakkar has been texting volunteers to make sure they are OK and if they need deliveries. The sponsors have been dropping by on the family to catch up on the pavement at a distance from their front door. The boys have been attending school; Syed and Adil have the most catching up to do.
Carim, who went to school in Lebanon and is already fluent in English, loves science and history. “We’re doing the Romans – they gave us central heating and roads,” he said, with a nod to the radiator; the Roman-built Watling Street runs close by his school.
Syed’s first day was punctuated with hundreds of “salaam alaykums,” as schoolmates greeted them with the Arabic they’d learned.
Adil, still recovering from the first of potentially several operations, travels an hour each day to Bolton to study English and maths, and has landed a job while at college. “I feel so proud of them,” said Colette Pritchard, a retired banker, who helps out as a driver for appointments across town. “The boys are so confident, so warm towards us,” she added, recalling the day Adil spotted her passing by a coffee shop and came out to give her a hug.
Sakkar has planted strawberries in the garden beds while Noura, delighted at last to have a home, prepares cardamom-scented coffee for a stream of guests.
The two-year sponsorship project formally ended recently, and Felicity’s group, confident now after what it has achieved, is starting to weigh other goals and examine whether they can assist other refugee families. “When I started this, my bigger dream was that this could be a great model for social change,” she said. “Twenty people at your back, that's what it’s about.”
*The sons names have been changed
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