Back in September I had the best of intentions for this blog. I was ready to go, ready to share, ready to write. Be it business blurb, beauty bargains, fashion finds or food fads I was armed and I was ready. And then, just like that I was blind sided by something bigger than anything.
My blog was to be a place for me to muse about the things I love. Connecting people, collaborating, networking, sharing inspirational stories about people I meet running a business. It was to be about fun things too like fashion, frizzy hair & fabulous beauty finds.
So I’m as surprised as anyone to be writing about a world crisis on this frivolous little blog. But for one month in September my life was consumed by a crisis. I crisis I couldn’t walk away from. A crisis I couldn’t ignore. A crisis I couldn’t look back on and say ‘what did I do?’, only for the answer to be sweet FA.
So in September I took on the plight of the Syrian refugees. In my own little way at least. Why? Well what kick started me into action was a holiday on the Greek island of Symi. Symi is tucked away; it’s tiny and too small to be touched by the big bad world. How wrong I was. Symi was where I met some Syrian families who changed one season of my life for the better. And they changed it forever. So thank you Mouna, Mazen, Spring Flower, Hussein and Mohammed. Out of your unimaginable pain grew hope in a little town a million miles away from Damascus. Little comfort to you guys, still in pain and suffering. Still displaced. Still struggling and for that I still feel so sad.
So on my return from my summer holiday I quickly set up a Facebook group, trading on my past glory of Wokingham Gossip Girls. I set that group up 6 years ago and it now has over 13,000 members. It’s a moniker that’s trusted and loved locally and so it made sense to give the new group the GG seal of approval. But rather than set up a group where people could cry, sympathise, moan, I wanted a group that would do stuff and so Gossip Girls in Action was born.
I’m sure many of you will know what my little group of 1,200 people has achieved. It’s a small drop in the ocean I know but it gave people hope, it changed perceptions and it sent some members on the most incredible personal journeys. We arranged and filled a 25 tonne lorry with donations bound for Macedonia. But I must admit, I felt guilty as I waved off our lorry of donations. It was the end but really it was only the beginning. It was a big achievement, it was all consuming and I needed a break. I also needed to work, something I totally put on hold during ‘the campaign’!
But I never really waved goodbye to the situation, to our campaign, to our loyal, passionate, powerful group. I’m pleased to report that we’re back up and running and I’ll no doubt be calling on Gossip Girls in Action as we head into the new year. Today I attended a Syrian Refugee Conference at the local borough council. About 30 people were in attendance, from voluntary organisations, faith based groups, members of the public. And there was a panel of 5 key people. I thought this would be a good opportunity to sum up what happened and what we hope will happen next.
Dan Hobbs from the Home Office was there in his position as Deputy Head of the Syrian Resettlement Programme. He spoke about the 20,000 refugees whom the government has agreed to take. 1000 have already been brought into other areas of the country (between September and now). The pre-Christmas phase has been a time of learning apparently. A few things came up:
• The resettlement programme is for the vulnerable (vulnerable being women and girls at risk; survivors of violence or torture; people in medical needs).
• 20,000 is a political figure and this wasn’t discussed.
• The resettlement programme is just one part of the government’s response to the Syrian crisis. £1.1 billion has been spent in the region to date. (Recent bombings by the UK government clearly were not on the agenda).
• 5 families will be settled into Wokingham over the next 5 years. More may come if systems are successful however housing will be the issue. (More on housing below).
• After 5 years refugees will be eligible to apply for settlement if they wish.
• Overseas Development Aid is funding this scheme.
• The government and more specifically the local council want to tie up with delivery partners. They are currently working on a community based sponsorship scheme. This is still being finetuned.
• The government and councils ‘lack of plan’ (my words not the minister’s) is really because the resettlement programme has seen a rapid upscaling since September. Prior to that and the promise of 20,000 people, refugees were being resettled in very small numbers. They need to deliver quickly and so they’re on the backfoot which is why they need our help.
Next up was Roy Millard – Partnership Manager South East Strategic Partnership for Migration. Working specifically in the South East he said 32 people have arrived in the South East already. Either 39 more are expected before Christmas or another 7 people are arriving taking the total up to 39 (sorry I couldn’t take notes quickly enough!). He said how it was so difficult in the South East due to housing costs. Housing is funded at local allowance housing rates but these rates don’t cover the high rental fees in the South East. It seems that housing is a BIG problem. No houses, no resettled refugees. So how many of the 20,000 will be resettled in the South East? Mr. Millard said 22 local authorities have said that they will take refugees and so if they’re all good on their promise and commit, the region will take approximately 2,500 people.
Mr Millard was followed by Nick Harborne – Reading Refugee Support Group. He is a man on the ground as it were. The RRSG has been running for 21 years and was set up in response to the Kosovo crisis (which he was directly involved with). This group sees about 100 refugees through it’s drop in and appointment system. He said the numbers have spiked in the last few months. It’s run by 2 part time workers and volunteers. He said that they are still seeing people 10 years after they first arrived, that’s just how complex their problems can be. They do lots of amazing things and are worth checking out. The City of Sanctuary was something he urged people to take a look at.
Next up, Zainab Koroma from the British Red Cross. It goes without saying that this organisation offers a huge amount of support, both to the refugees but also to schools, organisations and volunteers through education. One of the massive projects they work on is their family tracing service as so many refugee families become separated along the refugee route. They also work with schools who are accepting refugee students to help them with the process. Her main point was that all sectors need to work together. We need good channels of communication to ensure that work isn’t duplicated and all bases are covered.
Wokingham Borough Council’s Head of Housing Simon Price then took to the floor. As a town we are working to 5 households, perhaps 25 people. The key point here was housing. The refugees will not be accepted into public housing. There is too much demand for that locally as it is (there’s been a 100% increase in homelessness in the area in the last year). And so, in a nutshell, private houses need to be found. The council is talking to faith based groups as well as estate agents to see what is available. If the council can find 3+ bedroom properties they will take on the tenancies themselves and act as landlord. They can even pay 1 years rent up front. They don’t want anyone out of pocket but it’s so difficult in this area due to the cost of housing. The local housing allowance for a 3 bed house is £969.01. It’s hard to find a rental property in the area for that. They are aiming to keep families central to Wokingham as they will need access to services (bus routes, doctors, shops, schools).
So immediately two things are happening. The hunt is on for houses. As I said, no houses, no resetting of refugees. If anyone has any leads please let me know or get in touch with the council housing department. Secondly, a steering group is being set up. The group will comprise members of the voluntary sector with faith based groups and others. It will work in partnership with the council (who will provide funding) but it will keep things on track and it will get things done. It will reach out to the wider community of amazing people we have here, tap into their expertise, their knowledge. It could be something as simple as finding second hand uniform for kids about to start at a local school. It could be providing food or a familiar face. The bigger things will be looked after by more experienced members of our amazing community but we’ll be needed, for sure.
I have agreed to be on the steering committee and I will await further instruction. As soon as I know more, I’ll report back. I can act as a funnel for information and feedback to Gossip Girls in Action on what’s needed on a practical.
This is a long blog post, I know, so if you’ve managed to get this far thank you for sticking with me and reading my blurb! It’s been a long day but I’m keen to write it all down whilst it’s fresh in my mind. So apologies for the ramble but I hope it puts you all in the picture as to where we are as a resettlement town for refugees.
Take care one and all.
(And apologies for the lack of images, a terrible sin from someone who runs a photography business!).