Leaving war behind, Syrian refugee families embrace new life in Britain
Four-year-old Syrian refugee Julie al-Masri shrieked with laughter as she ran towards her father, clutching a unicorn-shaped handbag which her mother said symbolised the freedom of their new life in Britain, safe from the trauma of war.
The family of four is one of eight Syrian refugee households who have been resettled in Kingston upon Thames in southwest London, as part of a government scheme supported by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
"The war destroyed everything. It was a hard life. There was no work, no food, no water," said 30-year-old Omar al-Masri, who arrived in Britain in November, having spent five years waiting for resettlement in Lebanon after their Syrian home was bombed.
The quiet London neighbourhood, where only the sounds are of passing cars, is starkly different from their hometown of Deraa, which has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in Syria's seven-year civil war.
"We were very, very happy when we arrived in the UK. I can't explain it. We were happy that we will start a new life with our daughters," al-Masri told journalists. "The UK is our country now."
The British government, one of the largest donors to the Syrian crisis, says it has resettled more than 7,000 Syrian refugees between 2014 and 2017, focusing on the most vulnerable, with half of them children.
Local councils, charities and communities have been at the forefront of efforts to help refugees adjust to their new lives, in the face of an arduous asylum process which can take years. In addition, limited job opportunities and a shortage of homes have pushed many into homelessness, which can spiral into labour abuses and sexual exploitation, aid groups say.
The government has come under fire for denying basic rights to the so-called "Windrush generation" of Caribbean migrants invited to Britain after World War Two to plug labour shortfalls.
Kingston is likely to receive another two or three families by early 2019 and aims to resettle 50 people by 2020, said Christine Murphy, local coordinator for the charity Refugee Action, which provides support during their first year.
"We have a moral obligation to do our bit to help the most vulnerable in society, both on our doorstep and from further afield," said local councillor Jon Tolley. "We are determined to show that refugees are welcome here and not only to give to and help them, but to recognise the contribution they make to our society, making us more compassionate, open and understanding."
Close to 120,000 refugees live in Britain, according to UNHCR. They are among the lucky few as only about 1 percent of refugees globally are resettled abroad. A key challenge is securing affordable housing for refugees, which is paid for by the local council. Tight budgets mean that Kingston relies on community spirit, with locals renting out their homes below market rates.
"I've been following the developments in Syria and I'm absolutely heartbroken by the scale of the tragedy," said Tony Clemson, who has let out his two-bedroom apartment to a Syrian refugee family. "I wanted to get involved and help ... If the scheme is going to work, they need to have somewhere to live."
Others like English tutor Heike Gesierich-Betts provide language coaching to Syrians settling in Kingston, describing the experience as "really rewarding".
For the al-Masris, such people have ensured a smooth transition to Britain from the Middle East. During the recent Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr, they met with other Muslims at the local mosque, praying together and sharing delicacies.
"I like the UK from the bottom of my heart," said 25-year-old Jouhaina, Omar's wife, who is studying to become a teacher. "Everyone here is really friendly and helpful. They smile at us and they're nice to our children." (Thomson Reuters Foundation)