Britain’s Coventry opens its doors to Iraqi refugees

The accommodation and hospitality the refugees have been shown is only a rerun of Coventry’s history.
Sunday 24/06/2018
People gather for an avent at St Peters Centre in Coventry.  (Coventry ‘City of Sanctuary’)
Welcoming city. People gather for an avent at St Peters Centre in Coventry. (Coventry ‘City of Sanctuary’)

LONDON - Coventry, the city that gave the undraped Lady Godiva its name and legacy, is a far cry from the pockmarked skylines from which the city’s newest inhabitants escaped. In cooperation with Westminster, local faith groups and the British Home Office, the West Midland city has resettled the largest number of refugees crossing to Europe by sea.

The accommodation and hospitality the refugees have been shown is only a rerun of Coventry’s history, where my family and I settled, escaping sanctioned-hit Iraq.

Decades later, Iraqi victims of war, sectarian demolition and cleansing are flocking to the city. History, it seems, has come full circle.

“Just like Coventry rebuilt itself after the second world war, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre continues to help those fleeing war rebuild their lives,” Coventry Bishop Christopher Cocksworth said in March as he and community leaders celebrated the opening of the centre, which helps refugees who fled war rebuild their lives.

Welcoming “is in our very bones,” Coventry Councillor Linda Bigham said.

The Atallah family, Iraqi Christians from Qaraqosh, was the first Iraqi family to be resettled under the government’s Vulnerable Children’s resettlement scheme, bringing an end to years of uncertainty and bureaucratic limbo.

Inside their modest home, with walls decorated with family portraits, Khalil and Lara Atallah spoke about their journey's twists and turns.

“We never imagined to leave Iraq,” said Lara Atallah, a mother of four, “but we defied the odds even when humanitarian professionals doubted our resettlement chances.”

Their village of al-Qosh, home to 500 people, was destroyed by the Islamic State.

“They left nothing. The fires consumed our homes, agricultural land and rearing farms,” Khalil Atallah said. He repeated the Iraqi word for “everything.”

“Our neighbours, who were Muslim were also hurt during the assault,” Lara Atallah added.

Before their resettlement application was approved, the family fled to Lebanon in search of affordable medicine for their daughter, who suffers from a lethal degenerative disease. As Christians, community support was available there but did little to cushion them against the shocks of financial hardships.

“As we didn’t experience human loss, only material loss. Our family and community were our caregivers, providing spiritual and psychological care,” Lara Atallah said. “We abandoned our country like it abandoned us,” her husband added.

While the Atallah children more easily adapt to such drastic changes, adjustment has been more difficult for the parents. Both take English language courses, which they hope will boost their chances of employment. Lara Atallah arrived in the United Kingdom with limited English language skills; her husband is learning from scratch.

Abu Salim is a father of three whose Muslim family was violently expelled from Dhi Qar by sectarian forces. While optimistic for the future his family can cultivate in Coventry, his delight was masked by a shadow of fear. They fled Dhi Qar to Tikrit but were again back under threat from paramilitary groups.

“Eventually we fled to Sulaymaniyah [in the Kurdish region of Iraq], then to Jordan and to Coventry,” he said.

Despite having arrived a little over two months ago, Abu Salim used the words “honeymoon” to describe his stay. Like the Atallah family, Salim’s three children were afflicted by trauma but embraced the chance life in Coventry made available.

“I remember when we first arrived at the airport, greeted by Mr Peter [Barnett, head of Libraries, Advice, Health and Information Service at Coventry City Council]. I still remember him carrying our bags” Salim remembered fondly. “As lost people, the city welcomed us with open arms.”

Since January 2012, 5,500 Syrians and 2,800 Iraqis have crossed into Europe and more than 500, UNHCR figures indicate, died crossing during the last four months, a slight increase over a similar period in 2017.

Salim said he does not dream about or miss Iraq but is eager for his children to resume their education. He also seeks greater knowledge for himself and dreams of economic self-sufficiency like Khalil Atallah.

Coventry’s vibrant civic society has been key to the social integration of both families and mindful of their religious backgrounds. Care and empathy have gone a long way, in the case of these families, who, as Barnett explained, will “be part of the new Coventry mosaic.”

Iraqis, no different from the Syrian, Somali, Afghan, Kurdish and Iranian refugees Coventry hosts, add new layers of culture to a city that was bombed during the blitz of the second world war. Their presence was both visible and audible walking around the city, where very few refugee families lived during the years I lived there.