When Rashed and Amira arrived in Northern Ireland one of the greatest shocks was the weather. Two years on it’s still a cause of discomfort: “Our daughters got used to the weather here more than us and they barely wear any layers, whereas us we’re the opposite of that,” says Rashed. While the chill of the air made a significant first impression, so did the warmth of the Whitehead community. Happily, that first impression hasn’t changed either.
Over the last two years those initial ‘welcome to Whitehead’ notes have turned into supportive friendships. Rashed recounts the story of one neighbour who was initially shy around the family:
“After a year of not saying hi to us we hear a knock on our door. He came to our doorstep and introduced himself. He had a bucket full of fish. He asked me if I like fish so I said ‘I do like fish’. He said ‘choose however much you want’ so I took four. He said ‘take more.’ Ever since then he never stopped talking to us and giving us fish. He brings sweets for my daughters every now and then and at Christmas he gave us presents. About a month ago we were in Lidl and we saw him there. He wouldn’t let us go unless he drove us back and took the stuff we bought in his car. He keeps an eye on our house and if we are out of the house and someone comes to knock on our door he would let us know later.”
Amira joins in with an anecdote of another neighbour who is quite literally removing barriers for the family: “There’s a fence between us and our neighbours so the she took a wood plank away to make it easier for our kids to go through instead of having to go all the way around. So if they’re playing football it became easier to go take it back if it lands in their yard. And she says to me ‘if you ever need anything just knock on our door’”
Just six months after the family arrived the pandemic began. Rashed and Amira had been enjoying their English lessons where they could socialise with other Arabic speakers and their daughters were settling in at school when, like everyone, their world suddenly became a lot smaller. Those neighbourly relationships and the support of the group became even more important, especially as the first lockdown coincided with the early stages of pregnancy for Amira.
Pregnancy in a new country where you do not have experience of the health system or speak the local language would be hard anyway but to experience it in a pandemic when your husband can’t join you at medical appointments is even tougher. Amira would be driven to hospital in Belfast by one of the Community Sponsorship volunteers, Scotty, but he would have to wait outside while she was supported through her scans and check-ups by a hospital interpreter.
Another volunteer, Heather, who is an Arabic speaker, would check in with Amira after the appointment to see how it went and if any extra help was needed. For Amira one of the hardest things to get used to, having had a number of pregnancies in Syria and Jordan, was how little time she had with the clinicians: “Back home I can go to the doctor whenever I need to but here you have to wait for appointments. And when I first went to the hospital [to confirm the pregnancy] they told me what to do, gave me some vitamins and told me to come back after two months for the scan. I was shocked.”
When the time came for Lara, now 14 months old, to arrive Heather from the group was her birthing partner and interpreter. They had watched lots of YouTube videos together to prepare Amira for what giving birth in the UK would be like. She found giving birth a “nicer and smoother” experience and speaks of the kindness of the hospital midwife team, although the length of labour was a surprise as in the Middle East you receive drugs to speed things up. Of Heather she says: “I felt like I had someone from my family with me that day. I love Heather and feel like she's another Mum.”
With the pandemic currently at a stage where communities can mix again the whole family are enjoying being out and about again. The eldest daughters Hala (8) and Seba (6) are back at school, Malak (4) is at nursery in the mornings and Rashed is volunteering at Jubilee Farm in Larne.
Jubilee Farm is the first community-owned farm in Northern Ireland and undertakes agricultural and environmental work with volunteers, refugees and asylum seekers, adults with learning difficulties, churches, and communities.
Rashed, whose mental health suffered during lockdown, has started volunteering there during the summer. “I was very happy, I felt like I was in a prison and had freedom at last.” He volunteers one day a week there and although he is new to farming and the work is hard it’s a high spot of his week: “It’s the first job that I have had here. It's the first time I met up with other people and mixed with them. It’s hard work there but despite that you enjoy your time and talk to people and have fun so you forget about the tiredness of it.”
Despite the challenges of the pandemic (and the cold!) the family are settled and happy and with friends in the wider community. Amira sums it up when she says: “I won't leave Whitehead. I have got used to it a lot!”