Syrian refugee thanks people of Falkirk for ‘open hearts and arms’

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Thank you Falkirk, for welcoming us with open hearts before open arms – the words of a refugee who fled from a brutal civil war in Syria and then domestic violence to find a new home in Falkirk.

Ahlam Al Swaidani and her four children are among 12 Syrian families – including 30 children – who have been welcomed to the council area to rebuild their lives.

A final family will arrive once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, taking to 60 the number of refugees in the district.

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The families are part of a scheme, funded by the UK government, and Ahlam told her story, via a statement, to members of Falkirk Council’s emergency executive who were asked to agree to the programme continuing.

Syrian refugee Ahlam Al Swaidani who now lives in FalkirkSyrian refugee Ahlam Al Swaidani who now lives in Falkirk
Syrian refugee Ahlam Al Swaidani who now lives in Falkirk

She and her family lived normal lives until 2011 when the Syrian civil war suddenly arrived in her village, Dar’aa-Izraa’.

She watched in horror as the Assad regime hunted down and brutally punished young children who dared to write ‘Freedom’ on a wall.

Living near a military barracks, the sound of artillery shells alone was enough for the windows of the house to shatter and her youngest child – just three years old – was so traumatised he became mute.

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“The place soon turned into a military camp. There were security barriers in every street, road and alley,” she said.

Pictures: Lisa EvansPictures: Lisa Evans
Pictures: Lisa Evans

“The Assad regime would stop and detain anyone, regardless of their age, gender or status.”

Her youngest brother was one of hundreds of youngsters who were detained.

“He had just turned 16. He now is a young 24. Still detained. His youth wasted. His life stolen away.”

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Ahlam knew “home” was not safe anymore. She and her four children fled to nearby Lebanon where her husband lived and worked.

But she did not find safety here – her husband was abusive and violent and after two years, the family could not bear anymore and fled to a domestic violence shelter.

While housed at the UN shelter in Lebanon Ahlam was able to work full-time and provide for her children but the whole experience left her traumatised and depressed.

There was just a glimmer of hope that things would get better – and so she  submitted her application to migrate to the UK.

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She said: “Something in my head was keeping that flicker of hope alive. I had faith humanity exists. I just had to find it.”

Scared and vulnerable, they arrived in the UK unable to speak the language or understand the culture.

“We really needed a miracle to survive – a God-send,” she said.

Their ‘God-send’ was resettlement officer Michelle Scott and the Falkirk Council team who looked after them.

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In emotional words, Ahlam (39) described Michelle as her guardian angel, saying: “You and your team were my family’s saviours. You reminded us of the humans we were, and that none of our differences mattered because we shared what was most important: being human.

“For that and much more, we are forever grateful.

“Thank you Britain, for opening your borders to us – thank you Scotland, for being our ‘home’.

“Thank you Falkirk, for welcoming us with open hearts before open arms.”

She also thanked the Central Scotland Racial Equality council “for all the opportunities, the understanding, and the support so far.”

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Ahlam and the other Falkirk refugees are among more than 3000 refugees who have been resettled in Scotland under the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme and the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme.

The UK government funding covers all of the costs of supporting the families for five years, including schooling, healthcare and English language training for adults.

The idea is that the support given gradually decreases over the five years – and the resettlement team are seeing them moving into employment, going to college and taking part in volunteering projects.

Several councillors, including each of the party leaders, spoke of how moved they were reading Ahlam’s story and thanked her for her bravery in speaking out.

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Councillor Adanna McCue said: “I was moved to inconsolable tears when I read that letter because it really home.

“We’re struggling in this country but it’s not even a drop in the ocean compared to how families are having to struggle. I just wish that we could do more.”

Councillors unanimously agreed to support a new scheme that is currently being developed and which will probably see Falkirk take another 15 refugees next year.

That support is not something that refugees like Ahlam will ever forget.

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“Thank you to each and every single fellow human, who poured their pure love, acceptance, friendship, and goodness, for nothing in return,” she said.

Her story, she says, has not ended. It has just begun.

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