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“Well, now you have sons”

Community Sponsorship volunteer Svenja Powell is one of the founding members of Canterbury Welcomes Refugees. The group first welcomed a Syrian refugee family in 2019: a mother and father, their two grown-up sons and their two primary-age children. Here Svenja tells us about lifting language barriers, a cautious introduction to Father Christmas and doorstep story-telling during lockdown.

Svenja admits to feeling a bit teary when she thinks back to the day the first Community Sponsorship refugee family arrived in Canterbury.  

It was November 2019. After an emotional meeting at Heathrow airport, she found herself walking around the family’s new house with the eight-year-old son.

“He’d had a nap on the minibus on the way back from the airport, so he was quite lively,” says Svenja. “He was chattering away to me in Arabic. When I couldn’t respond, he looked up at me, clearly thinking, ‘Why can’t you understand me?’ He just couldn’t make sense of it. In the end he ran to his Mum, crying.”

This was a significant moment for Svenja. “It gave me a glimpse of understanding into the hugeness of the step the family had taken in coming to the UK. As much as we might try to prepare them, they don’t really know what they’re coming into.”

Busy diaries and cups of tea

The first few weeks after the family’s arrival were packed with appointments with the GP, dentist, optician and job centre. Initially they were supported by a small group of volunteers.  

“We didn’t want to overwhelm the family with 20 different volunteers in their first few weeks,” explains Svenja. “We spent a lot of time with the family, taking them shopping, showing them English money, explaining how to buy things – in a supermarket you can’t go and barter. We also simply spent time wandering around and having cups of tea and coffee. So the first few weeks were time-intensive but really enjoyable, because we were getting to know each other.”

How to speed-learn English

The family arrived speaking little English, so at first the volunteers were reliant on interpreters and online translation tools. But not for long: the eldest son Mohammed, now 25, soon became everyone’s go-to translator.

“Mohammed has learned English at an unbelievable speed,” says Svenja. “He spent months and months with earphones in, always listening to English. He walked around with a little notepad with three columns: one with an English word, one with the pronunciation and one with the Arabic translation. He was constantly learning.”

Thumbs up

Meanwhile, Mohammed’s two young siblings got off to a strong start at their new primary school. Svenja remembers visiting with the family for the first time. An Arabic-speaking pupil had been recruited to accompany the tour of the school and the three children were soon happily running off ahead of the grown-ups. As the children didn’t speak English, a teacher asked them to use their thumbs to communicate.  

“It was thumbs up if they were ok and thumbs down if they had a problem,” says Svenja. “So they were running around on this school tour with their thumbs up! Even now if you ask them how school is, you get a thumbs up.”

Questions at Christmas

As the festive season approached and Christmas lights were strung around Canterbury, Svenja had a potentially awkward question to navigate. The youngest son had found a book about Father Christmas and asked if Svenja if he’d be paying a visit.   

“I looked at the parents, trying to get a steer from them, because I didn’t want to go against their Muslim faith,” says Svenja. “They immediately smiled and gave me a little nod, so I said, ‘Of course – Father Christmas brings presents to all children!’”

So with the parents’ blessing, another volunteer sewed stockings and the group filled them with presents. The family accepted Svenja’s invitation to her church’s annual Christmas film screening and on Christmas day itself, all the family received gifts.

“Right from the beginning we’ve had a very respectful and comfortable acknowledgement of our faiths,” says Svenja. “We made it clear: you are Muslims, we are Christians, we both have a strong faith and that’s ok. And it’s never created a problem.”

Caring during Covid

The start of 2020 brought good news: the second son, 21 year-old-Majd*, got part time work helping an Arabic-speaking chef in a restaurant kitchen. But then the pandemic hit, and the restaurant closed.

It was crucial to stay connected to the family. Svenja and her fellow volunteers took turns to stand outside their house, chatting to the adults and reading stories to the children.

“When the family arrived, they had four months of rain and then the pandemic started and we went into lockdown,” says Svenja. “I think it helps that they are so amazingly together as a family – so supportive of each other. It seems that whatever life throws at them, together they can get through it.”

It appears that Svenja is now part of that family too. “My family has two daughters. At one point Mohammed told us, ‘Well, now you have sons too. We are now your sons.’”

Since we interviewed Svenja for this story, Majd has started training with Migrateful, presenting recipes online, improving his English and growing in confidence.

Find out how you can welcome a family too.