Ashford Borough Council’s work to welcome Syrian refugees is recognised in national awards
Ashford’s proud record of welcoming more vulnerable families from war-torn Syria than any other district in Kent, and indeed across the South East outside of London, has been recognised in a national awards scheme.
Ashford Borough Council’s work in offering the hand of friendship to 135 desperate refugees displaced by Syria’s long and bloody civil war has led to it being shortlisted in the prestigious annual LGC Awards 2020. Ashford’s Syrian resettlement programme entry has been nominated in the Diversity and Inclusion category.
In deciding to shortlist Ashford, judges were looking for evidence of strong leadership, staff engagement, positive outcomes to promote diversity and inclusion, boldness in setting goals, and proof that diversity and inclusion are central to the council’s work.
Sharon Williams, Ashford Borough Council’s head of housing, said: “The Syrian refugee crisis shocked the world – who can forget the harrowing photo of a child washed up on a Mediterranean beach. That image is as sickening today as it was then and was an important reference point for our involvement in the national programme to resettle the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
“Our Syrian families have inspired so many people within our borough – they have even inspired an art project. Their resilience and humility are moving and our determination to help normalise their lives has brought communities together for the better. Ashford will never be the same again.”
Here Sharon tells the story of how one council in Kent has led its community in offering new hope and a fresh start to stricken families and young children…
When then Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons in September 2015 and announced the government’s intention to expand the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme and settle 20,000 Syrians in need of protection across the UK, Ashford Borough Council was quick to step forward.
A unanimous decision to welcome refugees was made by the council’s Cabinet on 8 October 2015, a decision that was enthusiastically endorsed by full council. We committed to welcoming up to 50 refugees per year for each of the five years as part of the scheme – far in excess of any other local authority in the South East outside of London.
Today, 30 families totalling 135 refugees have been resettled in Ashford. Some of the families have even felt so much at home that they are putting down roots and extending their families – 10 new babies have been born since December 2015 and a further three are on the way!
The first questions each family ask when they arrive are: when can we learn the language, when can we get into work and when can our children go to school? With the emphasis on integration, the council has worked hard, with the support of a range of partners and the wider community, to support families to gain the skills they need to enter the workforce.
Dedicated training has been provided in partnership with Concept Training in south Ashford. This combines English language learning and workplace skills, including awareness of UK employment and health and safety legislation as well as providing emotional support where required.
Provision at Concept began with a course intended to improve employment prospects – many of the refugees were stonemasons and carpenters – and has now expanded to include courses accessible for those with childcare responsibilities for pre-school children. This is important, as this group have found it harder to access mainstream classes. Teens who are not eligible for a school place but are not yet ready to enter college or employment are also catered for.
With driving theory tests not being able to be passed in Arabic, many men and women have excelled in learning English to the extent they have been able to pass their theory (and practical) tests to give them independence and the means to get to work.
Many of the men have found work with more than 50% of households having at least one family member in paid employment with many more undertaking volunteering and work experience. One has been appointed as a paid Arabic-speaking volunteer co-ordinator at the Ashford Volunteer Centre, working with minority ethnic groups to encourage volunteering and arranging community events.
The children have thrived in school, proving to be enthusiastic students who have the full support of their families to excel. Many are progressing onto college courses.
While strong political leadership paved the way for the borough’s involvement it is the role of Anne Forbes, Ashford Borough Council’s Syrian Resettlement Co-ordinator, who has drawn out the support and goodwill from local people. Anne’s astonishing contribution led to her receiving the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s New Year Honours List in January 2018.
From the outset Ashford has worked closely with the Home Office resettlement team, the International Organisation for Migration and UNHCR to ensure that the families resettled to Ashford are those whom we can best support to rebuild new lives in our community.
We quickly tackled fears and misconceptions that refugees would jump the queue of those on the housing waiting list, have access to big houses with luxury items, somehow represent a terrorist threat, or that the cost of resettlement would fall on local ratepayers.
To this day all of our Syrian families are in private sector accommodation and making a positive contribution to the communities in which they have found new homes.
Donations poured forward from the community and continue to do so. Many items cover things government funding does not cover, such as televisions. Donations of time, physical goods and services were all offered.
Our families have astonished us with their humility and resilience, but they have also inspired art projects. People United and renowned fabric artist Anna Ray, have brought together a group of Syrian mums and a group of resident Ashford mums to talk about what ‘home’ means, including the impact of losing a home and what makes a home.
The council has done this the right way. Being transparent from the outset, encouraging integration and delivering on its mantra that the council and its business is essentially People serving People.
While the council has learnt along the way, the project has appeared seamless to the outside world and Ashford’s response has received national acclaim. We were praised by the Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as being endorsed by a visit from the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP.
Only last month, Anne Forbes attended a conference in Brussels, sharing our work on the refugee employment agenda as best practice across Europe.
This project has been all about community and integration. Each refugee has been given a chance of a new life and with the platform and opportunities the council has given them, they are all embracing and enjoying living in our borough and making Ashford their home.
The winners of the LGC Awards will be announced on 18 March 2020 at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London.
Photos used courtesy of Anna Ray.