Syrian refugees welcomed on remote Scottish island

Residents of the Isle of Bute believe the 10 Syrian refugee families will have a positive effect on the community.

Ten Syrian families have been resettled on the Scottish island of Bute [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera]
Ten Syrian families have been resettled on the Scottish island of Bute [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera]

Isle of Bute, Scotland – In his office in Edinburgh, Michael Russell, a member of the Scottish Parliament for the district of Argyll and Bute, reflects on Europe’s response to the “refugee crisis” of 2015.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that Angela Merkel is Time’s Person of the Year: a slightly right-wing, conservative politician who has shown an extraordinary sense of leadership in saying ‘We have an obligation to help and we are going to help’,” Russell says. “Little wonder that many refugees want to go to Germany.”

What Russell would like them to say is “We want to come to Scotland.”

“There has been a strong feeling in Scotland that we should be doing more, and a frustration that we can’t,” he explains.

As the country is part of the United Kingdom, decisions surrounding the resettlement of refugees in Scotland are made through the UK government, which has agreed to take in 4,000 Syrian refugees a year until 2020, a number Russell considers “unduly restricted”.

‘A heaven-sent opportunity’ 

We have a moral duty to help. We cannot sit back and do nothing while these poor people try desperately to escape war-torn countries, risking their lives and their family's lives in the process.

Dick Walsh, regional council leader

Not only does he believe that there is a moral obligation to do more, he thinks that taking in higher numbers of refugees could be socially and economically beneficial for Scotland.

“There are parts of Scotland where it would be immensely helpful to have refugees. Germany has a well-developed and flourishing economy. We have economic problems caused by depopulation in the west of Scotland,” Russell explains. “Here is a heaven-sent opportunity to do something sensible and to do something helpful.”

One location that has suffered from depopulation is the Isle of Bute, an island off the western coast of Scotland, located in Russell’s constituency of Argyll and Bute.

Scotland is made up of a mainland and close to 800 islands. Although it is one of the most easily accessible islands in western Scotland, Bute is only reachable by an hour-long boat journey from the mainland.

It may seem an unlikely location for the resettlement of refugees but in early December, 10 Syrian families took up residence on the island, which currently has a population of 6,500 people. Five more families are due to arrive over the course of January.

Argyll and Bute’s Refugee Resettlement Group held their first meeting on September 18, 2015, to discuss the logistics of the refugees’ arrival.

That same month, Dick Walsh, the regional council leader, said: “We have a moral duty to help. We cannot sit back and do nothing while these poor people try desperately to escape war-torn countries, risking their lives and their family’s lives in the process.

“If we can help just 20 people, then that’s 20 people who will have the opportunity of a better life,” he continued.

The response of the island community

On an icy-cold December evening, just as the last ferry of the day departed for the mainland, a queue began to gather outside Bute’s Discovery Centre Cinema, which overlooks the harbour of the island’s main town,  Rothesay. Inside was a screening of the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, to raise money for local non-profit organisation Bute Oasis, which planned to provide 115 holiday hampers for Bute’s most vulnerable families.

 The local island community response to the arrival of the refugees has been described as ‘fantastic and amazing’ [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera]

Bute Oasis’ founder Angela Callaghan stood at the head of the queue for the film screening, handing out traditional Christmas mince pies as the audience entered the theatre. When asked whether Bute Oasis’ holiday appeal would include the newly arrived Syrian refugees, Callaghan responded, “Of course, they’re a part of our community.”

Callaghan described the response of the local island community to the arrival of the refugees as “fantastic and amazing”, and said she had witnessed no resistance whatsoever. Throughout Rothesay, and nearby Ardbeg, both of which will become home to the Syrian families, there was a palpable sense of a close-knit community welcoming the newcomers.

Manvinder Kaur Virdi and husband, Baljit Singh Virdi, have created a world food section in their shop, which they have expanded to include ingredients for Syrian cooking [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera]

Manvinder Kaur Virdi and her husband, Baljit Singh Virdi, own and manage Rothesay’s Londis convenience shop on Montague Street, a five-minute walk from the harbour. At the back of the shop, the Virdis have created a world food section, which they have recently expanded to include essential ingredients for Syrian cooking.

“We bought in Arabic bread and Arabic coffee, as well as coal for shisha pipes,” Singh Virdi says.

Also in the section are Syrian spices such as sumac and zaatar, and tahini paste, used to make hummus.

Syrian families have already started coming into the shop regularly, and seem to appreciate the efforts he and his wife have made, he adds. “They love it, they know the aisle well.”

Relaying conversations he has had with the families, Singh Virdi explains: “I think they are settling down very well, they’re getting used to it.

“It’s good for the island, we need more families … it will be good for business, once they start working.”

An aisle in the Vircis’ shop featuring ingredients for Syrian cooking. The owners of the store hope it will make the island’s new arrivals feel at home [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera]

A copy of the local newspaper, The Buteman, picked up in the Virdis’ shop, contains an advertisement placed by six of Bute’s churches, displaying the message, in both Arabic and English: “The Christian churches on the Isle of Bute join together in welcoming our new friends from Syria”.

A number of the island’s churches have offered space for the refugees to use for services, as they await confirmation on whether an imam will be available to travel from the mainland once a week to conduct Friday prayers.

Craig Borland, the editor of The Buteman, was praised in early November for his comments on the refugees’ arrival. He wrote: “I want Bute to be a place where people who come here with little more than the clothes they are standing in can feel safe and at home. I want Bute to be a place known not for narrow-minded bigotry, but for its warmth and humanity, and willingness to help people with nothing in whatever way it can.”

Borland says the reaction of the local community has been “overwhelmingly positive.

“All is going really well. The volunteers have rallied round and are able to provide what they can. There haven’t been any shortcomings,” he adds.

In response to any unanswered questions the local residents may have, island councillors Robert MacIntyre, Isobel Strong and Len Scoullar placed a letter in The Buteman entitled: “A few facts on Bute’s new families”.

In it, they explained that two local housing associations “allocated houses which had been lying empty”, and also outlined the sources of funding for services such as support staff: these services have been provided to the council through the UK government.

‘England may be full but Scotland isn’t’

“We have empty social housing and lots of private lets as well. Partly the reason for it is that people move away if they can’t get a career here, so there’s lots of empty housing,” Strong explains.

“There’s capacity in the schools; the school rolls have been falling. We’ve got housing and education available in the community without depriving anybody else of anything.

“I came [to the Isle of Bute] as a young mum 40 years ago and I’ve always felt I got a welcome here,” Strong adds. “It’s a very friendly place; people smile at you in the street even when you don’t know them. I think there’s lots here for [the Syrian families], and it’s a good place to bring up children.”

Strong explains that the availability of resources such as housing is not unique to the Isle of Bute, as the population density across Scotland is low, and many communities across the west have steadily declining populations.

“England may be full up but Scotland isn’t. There are lots of communities who have space and who would be happy to take in refugees.”

Another of Bute’s councillors, Robert MacIntyre, explains that the island’s population has dropped by 10 percent recently, and as a result of this, the incoming refugees will be a “valuable addition to the community”.

The reaction of the local community has, for the most part, been positive [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera]

Both councillors agree that if the refugees were to put down roots on the island, they could have an incredibly positive impact on the community, and the same could be said for other parts of Scotland where populations are declining.

Russell, a member of the Scottish parliament or MSP, says that in locations with ageing and declining populations, “they need young, economically active, ambitious people.

“Refugees are often those things,” he says, adding that they are “determined to have a better life”.

Strong is not satisfied with the UK government’s reaction to the refugee crisis. It has been “dragging its feet”, the councillor says.

“We think that there’s room for them [in Scotland], and we want to give them refuge.”

“I don’t know how much truth there is in this, but some say St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, was Syrian,” Strong muses.

The refugee crisis: Scotland’s response

There has been discord between the UK government and the semi-autonomous Scottish government concerning the response to the refugee crisis in Europe.

Since the May 2015 general election in the UK, the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, has held a majority in the House of Commons, with 331 elected members of parliament. Of these 331 MPs, only one was elected in Scotland.

Out of Scotland’s 59 available seats in the UK parliament, 56 are held by the Scottish National Party (SNP), a social-democratic party that supports Scottish independence. Scotland’s first minister, and leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, has urged the UK government to offer far more support than has currently been agreed upon.

Bute is an island off Scotland’s western coast, which is only reachable by an hour-long boat journey from the mainland [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera] 

With a population of around five million, Scotland makes up 8 percent of the UK’s population. The proportionate commitment of the Scottish government was initially to take in 10 percent of the incoming refugees, but Scotland has, in fact, taken in around 40 percent of the refugees who arrived in the UK in late 2015.

Humza Yousaf, an SNP MSP and Scotland’s minister for Europe and international development, gives the UK government credit for the financial aid being sent to refugee camps, and their offer of assistance to make crossings safer for refugees in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, but criticises its intake commitments. 

Britain can take in many more than the 20,000 refugees agreed by 2020, he says, adding: “If there’s a political will, there’s always a way.”

The SNP has been encouraging the UK government to take in higher numbers of Syrian refugees, according to Yousaf. He points to the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new parliamentary session in June 2015, when Angus Robertson, the SNP’s UK parliamentary group leader, raised the issue of refugee resettlement. “The UK has an appalling record on the resettlement of Syrian refugees and is not prepared to co-operate with other European nations on accepting refugees who have been rescued in the Mediterranean,” Robertson stated.

Syrian refugees across Scotland

Amer Masri first came to Scotland in 2007 to complete a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. When the uprising began in 2011, Masri returned to Syria, but comments he had previously made about the brutality of the government of President Bashar al-Assad led to him being imprisoned by the country’s intelligence branch for two months, during which time, he says, he was exposed to a range of physical and psychological torture.

Upon his release, Masri returned to Scotland in July 2011. “When I arrived, not a lot of people knew what was going on in Syria,” he explains. But the images released of the body of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi in September 2015 triggered a strong reaction across the UK, particularly in Scotland, he says. Masri recalls hearing that Nicola Sturgeon was reduced to tears upon viewing the images.

The Isle of Bute suffers economic problems as a result of depopulation [Harrison Reid/Al Jazeera] 

Masri has been living in Scotland for four years, and is now assisting the most recent wave of refugees to settle in and adapt to their new home.

“I am witnessing the Scottish government doing all it can to make sure the refugees feel welcomed and settled,” he says.

“They have been registered straight away with GPs for health checks, they have been allocated social workers to check if anyone has post-traumatic stress disorder, and they have been allocated housing. I have seen a five-star welcome from the Scottish government and the public.

“There is a big difference between policy in Scotland and in England. We have seen how much the refugees are welcomed in Scotland, publicly and on a political level. It has never been the same south of the border.”

Masri is clear about what he believes needs to happen. “Finishing the war is the first thing we ask for,” he says, “but with no signal that this will end soon, I would stress that more numbers must come to the UK, and Scotland in particular, as it’s a big country with lots of resources but a small population.”

MSP Russell also insists that Scotland has the space and resources to accommodate more refugees.

“We are not full up, we are absolutely not full up,” he says. “We have vast tracts of empty land, and places where we need additional population.

“William McIlvanney, the great Scottish writer who died [on December 5], described Scotland as a ‘mongrel nation’. I think that’s a proud description, and one we should be pleased about. This will add to that diversity.”

Source : Al Jazeera


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