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Ashford's hand of friendship extended to refugees fleeing civil war in Syria reaches out once more to those escaping the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan


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The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban will lead to many refugees fleeing the hardline regime now in place in Kabul, and Ashford Borough Council has been one of the first to extend the offer of sanctuary to those escaping the country following the US withdrawal.

A similar, successful offer of refuge was made to Syrians fleeing the brutal civil war which left the country in ruins. Now, many of those who came are established members of the community thriving in their new home, as Rhys Griffiths reports...

A Syrian man stands amid the rubble of his house. Picture: Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian man stands amid the rubble of his house. Picture: Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images

"I want to work hard to support my family but also provide a good service for others in the Ashford community, a place that welcomed me and my family."

Opening his Alim Butcher and Grocery shop in Beaver Road earlier this year marked another remarkable step in the journey of former stonemason Ibrahim Awad.

The father-of-three fled his homeland of Syria with his wife and children after the Middle East nation was plunged into brutal civil war as president Bashar al-Assad cracked down on opposition following the ill-fated Arab Spring uprisings.

Mr Awad and his family arrived in Ashford late in 2015 as part of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which saw then Prime Minister David Cameron offer to take in around 20,000 refugees from the conflict.

The borough council (ABC) was eager to play its part in offering a new home to those driven from theirs by the fighting, and during a four-year period 146 refugees – 34 families in all – were welcomed to this corner of Kent.

A refugee family build a new life away from war-torn Syria

"From the moment I met him it was clear that Ibrahim had huge determination to create a new and successful life in Ashford."

The words of Anne Forbes, refugee resettlement co-ordinator for ABC, who was there to welcome Mr Awad when he arrived at Stansted Airport shortly before Christmas almost six years ago.

"From day one he would spend hours walking round the town, familiarising himself with the area and getting to know the locals," she said.

"He did not speak much English but found ways to communicate with people in the community.

Ibrahim Awad, right, with his business partner Kalim Dogan
Ibrahim Awad, right, with his business partner Kalim Dogan

"He took any employment available and soon bought himself a car.

"Struck by the lack of Middle Eastern and specifically Syrian foods available locally, it wasn't long before he started driving back and forth to London wholesalers to supply familiar and comforting produce to all the resettled families and many other eager customers he had found in the Ashford area."

What started as a desire for a small taste of home many hundreds of miles away eventually turned into the chance to open a small business of his own, and in March the grocery and Halal butchery in Beaver Road was opened.

Together with friend and businessman Kalim Dogan, he has converted a derelict shop next to a builders' merchant into the new venture.

"Many people in Ashford wanted a new shop where they could buy foods not easily available unless you travel to London," he said.

Syrian refugees crossing the border from Hungary to Serbia
Syrian refugees crossing the border from Hungary to Serbia

"I want to work hard to support my family but also provide a good service for others in the Ashford community, a place that welcomed me and my family."

Mr Awad's story is just one of millions of different experiences of life as a refugee, experienced by those who are driven from their homes as a result of conflict and persecution.

The civil war in Syria, which saw Assad use banned chemical weapons against his own people, has caused an estimated 6.6 million Syrians to flee the country.

Turkey hosts the largest number of registered Syrian refugees – currently more than 3.6 million.

In March this year, the government announced that under the VPRS Britain had taken in 20,319.

Cllr Gerry Clarkson. Picture: Gary Browne
Cllr Gerry Clarkson. Picture: Gary Browne

Now the UK is once again promising to take in thousands of refugees from Afghanistan and Ashford has come forward with other Kent local authorities to offer a welcome to those resettling here.

Conservative leader of ABC, Cllr Gerry Clarkson, has been forthright in his determination for the borough to play its part, even in the face of potential opposition from people living locally.

“First and foremost, we are keen because it's a moral imperative to us because we are a caring borough," he said. "We must help these people, these are people who helped us. We have a loyalty and respect for them and we need to help them.

"These people are going to be useful contributors to the country. They're going to get jobs and they're mainly English speaking.

"People may condemn it and gripe about it but frankly I don't give a damn about that because I think the vast majority of people who are intelligent, reasonable and sensible will realise that what we're doing is really the right thing to do."

Ismaeil Ismaeil and his wife Jamila Nabolsi with their children Rida and Rital
Ismaeil Ismaeil and his wife Jamila Nabolsi with their children Rida and Rital

The borough's successful record of welcoming vulnerable refugee families from Syria has earned national recognition and a series of awards, including a British Empire Medal for Anne Forbes in the 2018 New Year's Honours List.

One refugee family described the "amazing" support they received from the community after arriving in the town in January 2016.

Ismaeil Ismaeil and his wife Jamila Nabolsi were forced to flee from their home in Damascus and arrived in the UK after being given official refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Speaking through an interpreter in 2017, 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.

"We have been really welcomed. When we arrived we were greeted by representatives from the council.

British citizens and dual-nationals residing in Afghanistan being relocated to the UK. Picture: UK MOD
British citizens and dual-nationals residing in Afghanistan being relocated to the UK. Picture: UK MOD

"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."

Breaking through the language barrier between Kent communities and refugees was one of the targets for People United, an arts charity in Canterbury, which organised a series of workshops for newly-settled Syrian mothers to spend time with mums from Ashford.

Liz Flynn helped organise the project and said the early sessions had some challenges.

"The Syrian women spoke Arabic and the English women didn't speak any Arabic," she said. "So we had a translator to support us throughout all the workshops.

"They started to use symbols and signs to gesture what needed to be done. And then the English woman started to learn some words in Arabic."

Syrian refugees taking part in community projects in Ashford. Picture: Anna Ray
Syrian refugees taking part in community projects in Ashford. Picture: Anna Ray

The project has culminated in an exhibition titled 'Home', on display at The Beaney museum and Gallery in Canterbury.

Now Ashford council is working to repeat the successful experience with Syrian refugees with those fleeing Afghanistan.

An ABC spokesman said: "Under the VPRS launched in 2015, Ashford Borough Council was one of the first local authorities to step forward and has so far welcomed 34 families totalling 146 refugees.

"Ashford decided to oversee the project directly and appointed specialist staff within our housing team to take full responsibility for helping the families integrate with the local community.

"It was a key decision that no local resident in housing need would suffer as a result of us committing to this programme, and all accommodation secured has been in the private sector which would not have otherwise been available to those on our housing register.

"Refugee resettlement schemes are funded by the Home Office so there is no major financial burden on councils."

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