Norfolk's role in tackling the Syrian refugee crisis
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman and the Bishop of Norwich came together with local leaders at Norwich Cathedral to discuss how to tackle the refugee crisis and why Syria matters to Norfolk.
By Helen Baldry
As the Syrian conflict continues to force people to flee their homes, George Freeman MP spoke about his recent visit to Lebanon where he met with Syrian refugees first hand and saw the lifesaving impact of UK aid. The MP visited the Malala school with Save the Children and spoke with displaced Syrian girls about the role that UK aid is playing in educating them and ensuring that we aren’t losing a generation of girls who could be Syria’s future teachers and doctors.
Speaking alongside the MP, the Bishop of Norwich praised Norfolk for its leadership in welcoming refugees to the local area and the decision by the Norfolk County Council to accept 50 Syrian refugees as part of the government’s Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme.
One such Syrian refugee, Mohamed Eldaly, spoke about his experience leaving Aleppo two years ago to resettle in Norwich. Having arrived unable to speak English, two years later Mohamed is now studying for his master’s degree in Molecular Medicine at UEA. Mohamed said, “I am so lucky because I live in Norfolk. Many families from Syria are so happy. They get a lot of support from people in Norwich.” Mohamed believes that too many asylum applications are refused and he wants pressure to be put on the government to find a solution.
The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich said: “It’s been incredible to see the outpouring of kindness and support from Norfolk’s faith groups, charities and local businesses for refugees since the crisis began. Our culture and economy benefit from embracing them into our community. We are proud to welcome refugees to Norfolk and I urge communities around the UK to do the same.”
The panel speakers and comments from those attending showed that people care deeply about those affected by the conflict in Syria – on a humanitarian level as well as for economic reasons.
Members of the audience shared accounts of people who this week have lost the right to remain in the UK and, after their perilous and traumatic journeys to get to Norfolk, are in immediate danger as they face deportation.
George Freeman said, “There’s a meanness afoot in this country that is intolerable.” He wants a much deeper commitment, particularly looking at the long term effects of the crisis in Syria – 75% of schools have been destroyed, meaning a generation is being unschooled and is at risk of poverty and radicalisation. He believes this is a test of the West to see whether we have the courage of our convictions to go out and make change.
Dee Robinson from New Routes spoke about the services offered to asylum seekers and refugees in Norwich, which include English lessons, mentoring, befriending, women’s groups and a youth and families programme. She said, “We are a welcoming city. We don’t share in this idea of a hostile environment.” Despite this, Dee acknowledged that many hijab wearing women have been spat at or sworn at while in Norfolk. She talked about the misconception that if people look different then they must be different. Once people of different cultures get to know each other and establish common ground, fear is reduced and they feel much more confident.
It was recognised that churches are places where people of different nationalities come together. It was suggested that places of influence could also be a platform for addressing the domestic problem of fear that prevents us from being generous as a nation.
Members of the panel and the audience expressed outrage at the way the Home Office is executing the government’s policy of hostility and serving deportation notices to dozens of people every month, allegedly without offering the right to appeal.
An audience member who provides backpacks filled with essentials to new arrivals was exasperated at the lack of information from the Home Office about new arrivals. Proper compassion requires organisation, and this appears to be woefully lacking.
The event highlighted that there is a great appetite for welcoming and supporting asylum seekers and refugees in Norfolk. George Freeman said, “Syria will come to us if we don’t go to Syria”. All the girls he met at the Malala school wanted to return to Syria to work as doctors and teachers there – so the bigger picture is for the UK government to invest in rebuilding the country in an act of genuine generosity.
The event on July 6 was organised by the Coalition for Global Prosperity. Chief Executive Theo Clarke said: “I am proud that Britain is a force for good in the world. Supporting those fleeing the conflict in Syria is not only the right thing to do but in Britain’s national interest. The public is right to want to know that their money is being spent well, and having seen UK aid first hand, and visited multiple refugee camps myself in the last year, I know that UK aid is making a difference to millions of live and making the world more stable, secure and prosperous for us all.”
Pictured above: George Freeman MP, Dee Robinson, Mohamed Eldaly, Richard Porritt (Political Editor at the Eastern Daily Press), The Rt Revd Graham James and Theo Clarke