Astar has settled over a Scottish island this Christmas and once more people from the east are bearing gifts. Just before Christmas 2015, Bute, an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland in the Firth of Clyde, opened its doors uncertainly to a battered group of 24 Syrian families fleeing the daily threat of death and persecution. Many among Bute’s 6,500 people were eager to welcome those who had endured horror. In some places the reception was chillier.
This reaction was fuelled by a degree of suspicion and resentment and given further oxygen by some media coverage which sought to sow fear and foment division. The editor of the local newspaper, The Buteman, was so appalled by the tone of some of his readers’ comments that he felt he had to face them head-on in a hard-hitting editorial.
“Mostly, these are just not-very-thinly veiled ways of people saying ‘I don’t want them in my backyard’. Well, I do,” wrote Craig Borland back then. “I want Bute to be a place where people who come here with little more than the clothes they are standing in can feel safe and at home.”
Borland has since departed the editor’s chair, but he will be delighted to know that his Christmas wish of 2015 has been granted: these Syrian families are indeed safe and they feel at home. This gruff and unsentimental little community now holds them close to its heart. The Syrian arrivals, in turn, feel that they belong here and are eager to repay the kindness they have encountered.
Two years ago Angela Callaghan formed part of reception committee on the island to help the refugees settle and feel welcome. She runs Bute Oasis, a gift and secondhand furniture shop which she uses to fund a food bank. Two years ago she expressed optimism that the Syrian families’ experience of Bute would be a happy one.
“These people will become part of our community and will not have much time when they arrive to organise meals. I know what it’s like, and it’ll be no different for them, so we’ll all rally round,” she said then.
This Christmas she is organising more than 100 food boxes for local and Syrian families alike and has given them all a little festive flourish. On Friday afternoon I find her as I had left her two years ago: organising the delivery of the boxes. Helping her to distribute them are two young Syrians, Ahmas Fars and Bissam Midani. “They just feel that they want to put something back into the community,” says Callaghan. “They help out here and on the counter in the shop, and the locals love them.”
Her two Syrian helpers now have their driving licences, which they obtained after taking their tests in Ireland, which offers the theory part of the test in Arabic. “The Syrian families have all settled well here and the community regards them as their own,” she says. “And that includes some of those who were less inclined to be welcoming when they first came here. We have lots of wee Syrian children running around with broad Scottish accents. Now I pop in and out of their homes for dinner and cups of tea.
“I’m not saying there weren’t some difficulties initially. I noticed that three of the children were struggling. There was fear and anger. But over the course of a few months you could see the tension leaving their eyes, and whereas once they would be telling you to back off, now they just want to give you hugs.” She tells the story of a child who became hysterical with fear when she saw a helicopter approaching the island – in Syria the approach of a helicopter was an apocalyptic event bringing bombs and death.
One of Bute’s success stories is that of Mohannad Helmi, who arrived 10 months ago with his wife Raghad al Barkawi, their four-year-old son Naeem and daughter Qamar, aged 18 months. Some members of his extended family are also here.
Within a short space of time the couple have made their modest house a warm and loving home. When I visit, Qamar is watching an Arabic children’s TV channel and playing peek-a-boo with me behind her hands. Her parents are beginning to pick up English, and tell me that Naeem now not only speaks it fluently but thinks in his new language too.
“We are very happy here,” says Helmi. “We have been shown nothing but friendliness and affection since the day we arrived. It seems that everyone smiles at us when we go to the shops or go out for a walk. Everyone waves at us. My aim is to learn English fluently and to then find a job.”
He doesn’t feel he will be returning to Syria in the immediate future, although when he speaks about his homeland, pain comes into his eyes. The family fled Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, after it was levelled by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad as they targeted rebels. As no food was getting in, people faced death by bombing or starvation. “In Syria I was a professional printer and I’d like to practise that in Scotland after my English has improved sufficiently,” says Helmi. “I also want to put something back into this community. People have been so kind, and we now regard this as our home from home. One day, God willing, we may return to Syria but we know that it won’t be the same country that we left. And if we do, we will leave a big part of our heart in Scotland.”
His wife, a woman clearly very much in love with her husband, disappears in and out of the kitchen bringing coffee and cake. You gain a sense that they have discovered happiness again and a degree of security in their lives. You also sense that this may be the first time in their marriage that they have encountered a measure of tranquillity and peace. Much of their happiness, it seems, derives from the fact that their children have now found a place where they can be safe and discover the simple joy of playing without fear.
“We do feel very safe here and very much cared for,” says Helmi. “It is a lovely place to bring up our children and it’s wonderful to see them happy and safe.”
He doesn’t go into details of the circumstances of their flight from Damascus, but it’s obvious that both the couple and their children were in danger every day they spent there. They smile and laugh a lot and tell me that there is now an unbreakable bond between this unfussy Scottish island and the ancient nation of Syria.
Argyll and Bute Council is also delighted with the way the Syrian families have settled – but more especially with the manner in which they have been taken to the heart of the community. A vocal scarecrow faction had tried to stir up suspicion and to organise a backlash, but they were repelled as a sense of Scottish decency and goodwill prevailed. There are still remnants of unpleasantness, but those who espouse it are very much a minority in the community. The refugee families are living in spare capacity housing, and nobody’s way of life or entitlements has been adversely affected.
The only moment of jeopardy came when some media outlets released the name of a suspect in the London bombing along with a photograph of him aboard the Bute ferry. He was very quickly released without charge but a minor frenzy erupted about Isis bombers hiding among refugees. The furore rapidly receded.
Graeme Murdoch, a photographer and designer who lived on Bute for a few years, said: “The Syrian families arrived on Bute not long after I pitched up on the isle, and one of my thoughts was: ‘Ah, one of them might open a decent restaurant in Rothesay.’ I met many of them during my time there and found a generosity of spirit, despite all that they had suffered, which initially wasn’t returned by very many.
“Gradually though, friendships began to develop, and one of the most supportive was Aidan Canavan at Bute Brew, the local micro-brewery; how ironic that they could never sample his joyous nectar because they don’t drink alcohol. I’m so glad that most of the families have stayed. The island community is better for it.”
The council leader, Aileen Morton, said: “The Syrian refugee resettlement programme has been a great success, both for Bute and for the families involved. It’s heartening to see families settling and growing in the community to the benefit of all. But from day one this programme has been about helping families in desperate need to build secure lives; it’s been about helping people fleeing trauma to feel safe, and I am delighted that they now feel able to refer to Bute as their home.”
The role of Rothesay joint campus primary and secondary school has been crucial in the process of integration. The school has always played an active role in this community, and it is here that the Syrian children will encounter the values that the community seeks to foster. I was told by more than one islander that all the children are now regarded as Scots, and that they are entirely comfortable in the accelerated west of Scotland genre of the English language. One of the older Syrian boys has become a captain of one of the school houses and recently delivered a speech in front of the entire campus.
Mounzer al-Darsani was a barber for 15 years in Damascus before fleeing with his family to Bute. He was a well-known character in the city, and his shop, the Orient Salon, was always busy. Earlier this year the Orient Salon rose from the ashes of Damascus and was born again under the same name on Bute.
It seems his Rothesay business is now thriving as much as his Damascus one did. It was his dream to be open for business again in Bute, but he knew he first had to conquer the English language.
“Immediately after I came here I studied English for five hours every night in my own home, and after six months I felt I was beginning to pick it up,” he says. “The locals have been very helpful. They sensed I was keen to learn and were very patient and helped me out when I got words or sentences wrong.
“I love it here. My family have been made to feel very welcome. This is a safe place and that is important. I also volunteer at the Rothesay festival and at the food bank because it’s my way of saying thank you to the people of Bute for having us here and for coming to our aid and showing mercy in our darkest times.”
Three years ago, Bute organised a public meeting to solicit views on how this formerly grand, but now struggling, place might be revived. According to the 2011 census its population had declined by 10% in the previous decade. Its formerly magnificent esplanade once thrummed with the feet and voices of several thousand Glaswegians – a summer bonanza which helped to sustain it for the rest of the year.
Now almost every other shop space along the front is an empty one. But as well as the Orient Salon, a Syrian bakery and patisserie will soon open. The Syrian people fleeing terror have possibly brought with them the miracle of life for Bute.
A small regeneration is taking place on the island. Four new babies have been born to the Syrian families and another is on the way. In their own way they are bringing optimism to a west of Scotland community that had almost forgotten what it meant.
REFUGEES IN NUMBERS
11m Number of Syrians who have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011.
3.3m Turkey hosts the largest number of registered Syrian refugees – 3.3 million – while Lebanon hosts 1.1m, and Jordan 660,000.
6.6m Number of people internally displaced in Syria.
1m About one million Syrian refugees have requested asylum in Europe. Germany, with more than 300,000 applications, and Sweden with 100,000, are the EU’s top receiving countries.
9,394 Syrian refugees resettled in Britain, in spite of support for greater numbers.
Source: UNHCR/EU/UK Home Office