Zahar and Lena arrived in a small market town in Lincolnshire just as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. At first they wanted to leave as quickly as possible and move to a bigger, more diverse city. But now they say they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else and are volunteering with their Community Sponsorship group to welcome another family to the area.
Zahar and Lena were forced to flee Syria with their children when their neighbourhood was heavily bombed.
“By the time we left the neighbourhood, there was no one there anymore,” Zahar tells us.
They fled across the border to Jordan where they spent the next 6 years.
“The Jordanian people were really nice, really welcoming. But it’s a small country and the economy is not strong. It’s hard to find jobs – even for Jordanians,” Zahar explains.
“There was no way for us to build a future there,” Lena adds. “Particularly for our children. We knew we needed to leave, and we applied for resettlement.”
Eventually they got a call from the UN refugee agency explaining that they had been identified for resettlement to the UK and asking if they wanted to accept this opportunity. Zahar and Lena said yes straight away, but it was a bittersweet time. Zahar explains why:
“Most of our extended family had also fled to Jordan from Syria. So although many things were hard about life in Jordan, we were still surrounded by our family. It was very hard to say goodbye. Our family were sad that we would be separated, but they were also pleased for us. All Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon are looking for a way to be resettled, and they would be happy for any Syrian that gets this opportunity. So we had mixed emotions, but we knew this was the right thing to do for our children.”
When Zahar, Lena and their children arrived at their new home in the UK, one of the first things that they noticed was that they didn’t have any neighbours from a similar cultural background.
“We thought about leaving the town and going somewhere else,” Zahar tells us. “I knew lots of Syrians who had been resettled in the UK, but we weren’t near any of them.”
“I wondered why I’d done this to myself,” Lena remembers. “I missed my family.”
Zahar explains that very shortly after they arrived, the UK went into lockdown for the first time as the Covid-19 pandemic got underway.
“Our Community Sponsors were really understanding and helpful. They said that they supported us fully in whatever decision we made – whether we decided to stay here or move away – and they would help us as much as they could. But they also advised us to wait to make up our minds until the Covid situation had settled down as it was not an easy time to move house.”
Slowly things turned around. For Lena, a big turning point was seeing her children start school.
“I saw how the level of education is better and how well the schools were looking after the children. It reminded me why we’d made this move.”
She and Zahar also got to know the people in the area.
“The people who live here are good and nice. We know them, and they know us,” Lena tells us.
A big issue for Zahar was being able to drive, which he finds essential in a more rural area. During his first year in the UK, Zahar was able to drive on a international driver’s licence, but then he needed to take his test.
“I struggled with the theory test because of the language barrier, but finally I passed the test and now I have passed my practical test as well.”
Zahar and Lena believe that having a Community Sponsorship group made moving to the UK much easier. Zahar explains that:
“Because of the group, we were able to solve lots of difficulties much more quickly. If we came to the UK and there wasn’t a group there to help, we would have struggled with everything.”
“The group gave me hope and made me feel optimistic. They gave me trust and made me feel comfortable,” Lena adds.
Now Zahar and Lena wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. In fact, they’ve signed up as volunteers to help welcome a second refugee family to the town through Community Sponsorship.
“Because we had such a positive experience, that’s why we’re getting involved. We are happy to do whatever we can to help – especially at the start when the family first arrives, because that was the period that we found the hardest.”
“The people who live here are good and nice. We know them, and they know us”
Of course it doesn’t mean that life is always simple or easy. Zahar and Lena both still miss their home country and their family. It’s particularly hard at special times of year.
“All throughout Ramadan, in Syria and in Jordan – in all Arab countries – there’s something in the air, like a special atmosphere. But we don’t get that here,” Zahar recalls.
But Zahar is pragmatic.
“Some things compensate other things. We live in a very safe place with very nice people, really good people. Our eldest son is preparing to apply to university to study engineering. We are happy here.”