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'Ordinary, yet so extraordinary'

Release Date: 19 Jun 2017

Anne Dawson from Barnardo’s Northern Ireland writes about the recent arrival of Syrian refugees in Belfast.

She’s described the experience as ‘Ordinary, yet so extraordinary’. Read on:

I didn’t sleep much the night before I went to observe the arrival of six Syrian families to a Welcome Centre, which was formerly run by Barnardo’s Northern Ireland as a series of flats for mums and babies.

I kept thinking about the families who were flying overnight from Jordan to a new life in Belfast and how terrifying, exciting and exhausting it must be for them. I imagined how I would feel if the roles were reversed and it was me packing up my family and my life in a refugee camp and flying through the night to an unknown country.

What is it like to flee your homeland, live in refugee camps and then make the journey to Northern Ireland to take a chance on the unknown, to take the outstretched hand of a stranger?

A unique waiting game

I arrived at the Welcome Centre at 7am. Everything was ready: the flats were cleaned, there was fresh bed linen on the beds and each flat had its allocated family name on the door (in Arabic and English). There were huge bowls of fruit laid out – bananas, apples and lemons – and the fridges and cupboards were stocked with food. There was a sign in each flat pointing towards Mecca.

Staff rotas for the five nights the families would stay plastered the walls, along with welcome signs written by children in English, Irish and Arabic. There were detailed itineraries of all the administration, registration and health checks that needed to take place before the families could move into their new homes. This was a well-rehearsed procedure; the staff had been welcoming families here every eight weeks for the last 18 months.

The Barnardo’s staff – who would be the families’ key workers for the next four months – stood in their bright green Barnardo’s polo shirts. The staff from Extern, another partner organisation, also stood waiting for their allocated families, along with a GP and a paediatrician. Everybody was waiting patiently for the call to announce that the bus was 15 minutes away.

Earlier that day

The families, who arrived here under the UK Vulnerable Person Relocation Scheme, landed on this occasion on a chartered flight from Amman in Jordan. They were part of a group of 39 adults and 31 children, and the eighth group to arrive in Northern Ireland in the past 18 months.

They had landed at Belfast International Airport at 6am. When they disembarked, they were welcomed by the Red Cross and processed through Border Control. They were then transferred to buses and escorted to Belfast.

Calm and dignified

When we finally saw the bus turn into the road that day I was hit by a wave of emotion as the enormity of it all became real. In one sense, it was just a regular bus coming up the road, but I knew that in that bus were people whose lives would never be the same again. All we could do as they approached was wave and smile at them.

As the families emerged off the bus, we saw that they were of all ages; two little boys in jeans and matching jackets that you’d imagine they had been especially dressed in, and three little girls in bright pink trainers. All the children were holding knitted teddy bears and colouring books they had been gifted at the airport. Their parents looked tired – but smiled, nodded and said hello.

Some of the people were more elderly, but all were smiling and nodding, and one older gentleman had a twinkle in his eye as he greeted us. The women were so elegant in their abayas. Their grace and composure was moving. It was all so calm and dignified.

The doors to the building were then flung open and the Barnardo’s and Extern staff inside greeted and welcomed everyone. The luggage arrived in a separate minivan, and suitcases packed with possessions were brought into the entrance hall. Everyone helped carry the bags.

On the surface it all looked so ordinary, like the families were visitors on a coach trip arriving at a hotel. But the ordinary masked what was in fact, on every level, something extremely extraordinary.

It was the beginning.

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