A warm welcome is in store for Syrian refugees

The situation compares well with the disorganisation that greeted the Ugandan Asians thrown out of their country by Idi Amin in the 1970s

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

Angela Callaghan, founder of the Oasis food bank on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, was sorting through a food donation from Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli cookery writer and chef, when I phoned her. I asked about the 15 Syrian refugee families who had recently arrived on the island. "The Scottish government has supplied each family with two days' food," said Callaghan. "After that, they can turn up at the food bank until their benefits kick in."

Ottolenghi's donation has filled 115 boxes, of which 15 will go to Syrian refugee families: free food for Syrians resettled on a Scottish island provided by an Israeli businessman living in London.

On Bute, the Argyll Community Housing Association is providing flats for the families in Rothesay. But in York, the refugee forum, brought together by the City of York Council, has decided against using social housing, fearing this could attract criticism from local people. Instead, private sector houses will be found through local faith groups, including the York Mosque & Islamic Centre. More than 100 offers of rooms in residents' houses have been rejected, following the advice received from refugee settlement organisers in Bradford. Refugees prefer to live independently on arrival in the UK.

I'm working with York CVS for a few weeks, so I've taken part in forum meetings. With leadership from councillor Keith Aspden, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader of the council, more than 40 people from 20 voluntary organisations and faith groups have committed to a settlement programme.

The Two Ridings Community Foundation is leading a fundraising appeal so that young refugees can have bicycles and laptops like their peers. There was dismay at the forum meeting when we heard that York would receive about 12 people - two or three families. In York, the capacity to welcome Syrian civil war refugees exceeds likely demand.

Sharon Alexander, chief executive of Tendring CVS in Essex, has drawn my attention to Essex County Council's planning for the arrival of refugees. And a paper prepared by David Wilde, the council's executive director for place operations, details the actions of the voluntary sector, the library service, schools and the fostering and adult social care services.

It's a welcome contrast to the reception we gave Asian refugees from Uganda in 1972. Thrown out by dictator Idi Amin, 40 families arrived in York to find chaos, with York Community Council organising their reception by itself. In Leicester, the council used newspaper advertisements to discourage refugees, claiming no jobs were available in the city. Forty years on, Britain's voluntary and public sectors proclaim that refugees are welcome here and are backing the rhetoric with coordinated, effective preparations.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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