Published: 00:01, 02 March 2017
A refugee family has described the “amazing” support they have received from the community as they try to build a new life away from war-torn Syria.
Ismaeil Ismaeil and his wife Jamila Nabolsi were forced to flee from their home in Damascus after protests against the Syrian regime descended into a bitter civil war.
After being given official refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) they arrived in Ashford in January last year as part of a government scheme to support 20,000 Syrians escaping the conflict.
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Now a year later, they are rebuilding their lives in Kennington, where they have been supported by members of the United, Reformed & Methodist Church, Ashford Borough Council (ABC), and other refugee families.
But it has been a difficult journey, as Jamila was pregnant when they fled to neighbouring Jordan after the fighting broke out.
Mr Ismaeil said: “The situation was really bad, there was no electricity, no water, no gas, it was really dangerous. My wife was pregnant, so we had to flee to Jordan for her safety.”
VIDEO: The family talk about their journey from Syria
Ms Nabolsi gave birth to their son Rida in the refugee camp, and together took the decision to come to Britain.
Since then they have been adapting to life here, and Ms Nabolsi has given birth to their second child Rital, who is now four-months-old, while Rida is three, and will start school in September.
Speaking through an interpreter, Mr Ismaeil said: “The biggest challenge is the language barrier, it has been difficult but people are helping me by trying to speak slowly so I can learn.
“I go to college and to the library to learn, while my wife looks after the children and drops our son off at nursery.”
Ms Nabolsi said: “To start with I have found things a bit difficult to raise a family here compared to in Syria, because in Damascus I had all my family, my sisters and cousins all helping each other, and they would help me.
“But when I gave birth here in Ashford I found myself feeling a bit lonely because my husband is at college and my son is at nursery.
"It was challenging, but other refugee families have come to visit and to help me.”
As a family they have met up with other refugees from Syria who have also been settled as part of ABC’s pledge to house 50 families in the borough.
Mr Ismaeil said: “We have been really welcomed. When we arrived we were greeted by representatives from the council.
“I’d like to thank my neighbours who have been brilliant and lovely, and I would like to thank everyone in Ashford for their treatment of Syrian refugees.
“They have been so supportive and understanding, for us they are amazing.”
Now they hope to build their lives here in Britain, and Ms Nabolsi says she is looking forward to seeing her children learning at school, and hopes one day they might be able to go to university.
Mr Ismaeil said he still hopes that one day he can return to Syria, but added: “We can’t imagine Syria will be back like it was before.”
The couple are among 10 families now living in the borough.
Part of the support for Mr Ismaeil and Ms Nabolsi has come from members of the congregation at the Kennington United, Reformed and Methodist Church in Faversham Road.
Churchgoers Stewart and Gwen French say they have hosted the family, and also been welcomed to a meal at Mr Ismaeil and Ms Nabolsi’s home.
Mr French said: “For us, the family we have got to know have shown tremendous courage. They have left everything they knew to come to a strange land with a strange language.
“They are making positive steps to integrate. A few weeks ago they came to our church and brought desserts for everyone, and passed baby Rital around to all the ladies. It has taught us a lot as a church.”
Mrs French said: “They have shown their willingness to learn about Ashford and the English culture, and made a real effort to join in. They are just such loving people who are very hospitable.”
A group of the men have been attending classes for two days each week with Concept Training in South Ashford to boost their skills.
Company director Chris Pound said that while they bring skills with them from Syria, they have to refine these skills and get the necessary qualifications to be allowed to work in the UK.
They have been completing skills such as bricklaying and carpentry, and Mr Pound said the group has recently made two new mangers for the children born here in Ashford.
They have also been taking lessons in health and safety on construction sites, such as what to do in an emergency, and providing first aid.
Martin Carnall has been taking the classes and says they are keen to find jobs to provide for their families.
He said they are all making progress, but said that it can also be a place for the men to talk of their experiences and emotions.
ABC announced its plan to take up to 50 Syrian refugee families in September 2015.
Council leader Gerry Clarkson said it followed public pressure asking him what measures he could put in place to support refugees.
At the time he said: “I firmly believe that Ashford must stand ready to play its part.
"These refugees are from a war-torn area and supporting them is the right thing to do.
“These people are the most vulnerable, and Ashford should be an exemplar in its attitude towards them.
"We want refugees to be proud to be here and I feel we should be proud to have them.”
Now the council has once again urged landlords and businesses who may be able to help to come forward.
Refugees are not placed on the council housing register, but are found homes within the private rented sector.
Meanwhile, they also want businesses which may be able to provide work experience or training opportunities to come forward.