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Scottish island community is a rainy haven for refugees who are giving back


Scottish island community is a rainy haven for refugees who are giving back

Residents of a small Scottish town help resettled refugees learn their language, adapt to a new culture, and become part of a close-knit local community.
11 October 2023
Woman and three men of varying ages pose for photo in the doorway of a café.

Wafa in front of the Bonnie Bling with, from left, Hugh, coordinator of employment and skills projects for resettled refugees, David, retired schoolteacher who volunteers his time tutoring English, and Yahya, a fellow Syrian refugee who introduced Wafa to David.

ROTHESAY, SCOTLAND - Wafa from Syria has become a local at the Bonnie Bling Café in Rothesay, a seaside town on the Isle of Bute off the west coast of Scotland, since arriving in 2021. “I'll have my regular please,” she says as she takes a seat to wait for her favourite mocha to be prepared.
Two women pose for photo in the doorway of a café.

Wafa with Ann, English language coordinator at Argyll and Bute Council, who was instrumental in helping Wafa become proficient in English and settle in.

When Wafa was resettled to Scotland with her sons Lalesh, 18, and Avinash, 11, it was a priority for her to improve her English in order to integrate and begin building her new life. She would drop by the Bonnie Bling for a coffee after going to council-provided English language lessons, practising her new skills with café owner and jewellery designer Mhairi, and other new friends. Along the way, she also picked up bits of the local lingo—including such colourful phrases as, ‘Ma heid’s mince’, for when you can’t think straight—some of which Mhairi reproduces on the light-hearted handmade postcards and jewellery she sells at her shop.

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Language was key to helping Wafa settle into the community of this small island town with a population of just 4,000. “She knows a lot of people!” says Ann, Coordinator of English for Speakers of Other Languages at Argyll and Bute Council, adding that Wafa seizes every opportunity to practise and improve her English outside the classroom. It helps that Wafa also has a talent and enthusiasm for language, already being fluent in both Arabic and Kurdish. 

Wafa’s English language skills were strengthened by retired teacher David, a volunteer tutor, who gave her an hour of directed conversation each week. “You do what you can, it’s not rocket science,” David says of the importance of offering his skills to help new arrivals such as Wafa.

“I've been a stranger in lots of places,” he continues. “It's good when you meet people who point you in the right direction, give you some ideas, act as an informant into the culture.”

Although the move to Rothesay has been a big change for Wafa and her family, the town’s tight knit community has helped her thrive. “They are very helpful. When you ask anyone for help with any problem, or for anything at all, they help you,” she says.

At David’s recommendation, Wafa started volunteering at the local Oxfam charity shop in town and quickly became a vital member of the team, using her language skills to assist manager Jan in training new Arabic-speaking helpers. Jan describes how Wafa quickly took charge of designing window displays and operating the till. “We trained her to use the till because her English is good enough, and she also now helps with the other Arabic speaking people. We're doing a training session for them that Wafa will help with,” says Jan.

The Oxfam shop is at the heart of Rothesay’s Victorian seafront, and as Wafa’s confidence in the language grew, and she served scores of customers every day, she began encouraging her ​​​​​fellow newly-arrived ​friends to join her. “If you want to improve your language, you have to work as a volunteer,” she recalls telling them. 

Two of Wafa’s friends are Sumaia and Hanan, sisters from Sudan, who were resettled to Rothesay in 2022 and volunteer at Oxfam. “Wafa told us, ‘You need to practise your English. I know a place where you can sign up to volunteer,’” Hanan says. Sumaia adds that she has found the small town to be a safe and friendly place, especially for her young children. “Here, the children can play outside on their own, and they have made good friends,” she says.

Wafa’s growing confidence has helped her to help others too, for example by organising a fundraiser for a fellow Syrian refugee whose family’s home was destroyed in the 2023 Türkiye and Syria earthquakes. Wafa cooked food and sweets and advertised the sale on social media. It was a huge success and Wafa made even more new friends, cementing her new-found place at the centre of a close community. “It is the thing I am most proud of,” she says.