Syrian refugees create new community in London

Sunday 04/09/2016
A Syrian refugee accesses Ahlan Wa Sahlan through her mobile phone.

London - During a summer domi­nated by negative me­dia stories about refu­gees heading to Europe, those who have already arrived have faced a backlash. But one online group in London is seek­ing to provide assistance to this new community of migrants and demonstrate that they can have a positive effect on society.
A Facebook group known as Ahlan Wa Sahlan — “welcome” in Arabic — that was started by a small group of Syrian refugees and others has grown into a vibrant commu­nity of refugees and volunteers in London. Providing language class­es and practical advice, Ahlan Wa Sahlan bills itself as a “community for volunteers, organisations and charities helping Syrian refugees feel welcome in our beautiful city, London”.
Co-founder Fardous Bahbouh said she understood the difficulty refugees face when embarking on a new life in a new country. A lan­guage teacher in her 30s, Bahbouh was studying for a master’s degree in the United Kingdom when the Syrian war broke out. She had been planning to return home but the conflict derailed her plans. “I am a refugee but I was one of the lucky ones because I was already in the UK when the Syrian war started,” she said.
Ahlan Wa Sahlan provides a fo­rum for volunteers and refugees to interact and help each other. “So many people in the UK wanted to help but they didn’t know how. When you have a very good-heart­ed person and they see the war on their TV screens, they want to help but they don’t know how. So this is one of the ways that they can do that,” Bahbouh said.
Many British people have volun­teered their time to help refugees learn English. For Bahbouh, a lan­guage teacher and translator by profession, the importance of refu­gees learning English could not be overstated.
“For the people coming to the UK, it is so hard to start in a new country and especially if they don’t speak English… The system here does not allow asylum seekers ac­cess to English classes until they are granted asylum in months or years. This means they are locked away from society because of the language barrier until the Home Of­fice decides on their asylum. And then, they are magically expected to integrate into society,” she said.
“So you had some people who were really motivated to help but they didn’t know exactly what was the best way to do that and you had the newcomers who needed help, so we thought if we estab­lish a group like Ahlan Wa Sahlan it would be easy to make the link,” Bahbouh added.
“There’s a lot of news about the refugees coming to the UK and I wanted to be part of making sure that the country does actually welcome refugees,” said volunteer English teacher Caryn Jenner in a YouTube video about the group.
Syrian refugee Mohamed said Ahlan Wa Sahlan not only helped him learn English, it also allowed him make new friends.
Ahlan Wa Sahlan is not a unique group but it is indicative of the kind of grass-roots activism carried out by charities and community groups to help newcomers adjust to life in Britain. The United Kingdom has pledged to resettle more than 20,000 Syrians but it is local com­munities and the first wave of refu­gees who have been settled who are playing an increasingly important role.
But Ahlan Wa Sahlan is more than just a disparate group of refu­gees from across the Middle East and volunteers who want to help them, it is a real community, Bah­bouh says.
“Yes, language is important but it is also important [for those coming] to see people like them who have integrated into society. They come and they don’t know what’s going to happen, so it is good for them to see other people who have already been through it. It reassures them and gives them a feeling that if oth­er people are surviving, then I also can survive,” Bahbouh said.
The group hosts dinners, picnics and other social events, allowing refugees of different countries and backgrounds to get to know each other and share the refugee experi­ence. They are doing more than just thinking of the past though. Many have volunteered their time and expertise to help the local commu­nity.
“We are here in this country that has very kindly welcomed us and allowed us to start a new life and it’s our responsibility to give back to the community,” Bahbouh said.
She spoke of the empowering na­ture of volunteering, particularly for refugees, to be able to give as well as receive. “We posted an an­nouncement seeking volunteers to help organise a Syrian dinner as a community-building event and so many refugees offered to help out, more than usually come to ben­efit from our services. I was deeply touched by all the enthusiasm and willingness to help and contribute. I believe that we need to create more opportunities, more ways to empower refugees,” Bahbouh said.
Ahlan Wa Sahlan has managed, in just a few short months, to create a sense of real community among refugees in London, not just among Syrian refugees, but refugees from different communities. “It is more than a Facebook group; it is a com­munity. We are a family here sup­porting each other,” Bahbouh said.
“It is a Syrian tradition that we always welcome refugees in our country, like during the Iraq war and the Palestinian (refugees). And now, even though we are in a very bad situation, outside of our coun­try, it also gives us a sense of con­tinuing the tradition that we have back home of welcoming people. Ahlan Wa Sahlan is open for every­body,” she said.