On Thursday 30th June 2016, Refugees Welcome in Richmond hosted our launch event ‘Stories out of Syria’ in the Waldegrave Drawing Room at St Mary’s University in Twickenham.
The aim of the event was to celebrate Syrian culture, raise awareness of what’s been going on in Syria, and gather support for our project to provide people fleeing the war with homes here in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. The evening was a great success, with over 150 attendees and a range of informative and inspirational speakers.
Whilst people arrived, networked, and ordered drinks, we heard some wonderful oud playing by Rihab Azar and viewed a slideshow showing pictures of Syrian places both before the war and as they currently are.
The first speaker of the evening was Baraa Esshan Kouja, a Syrian man who lives in Exeter. Baraa runs a London-based charity called ‘From Syria With Love’. Throughout the evening paintings created by children currently in UN camps in Lebanon with the help of ‘From Syria With Love’ were on display, and Baraa showed a short film about these children, who desperately want to be in school but are having to work 10 to 12 hours a day just to survive. We also heard about a thirteen-year-old girl who tragically died while fleeing the war with her family, and about the plight of so many civilian men aged 18 to 35 who flee Syria because the alternative is to be forced to participate in the fighting.
Susie Cracroft from Richmond Council then provided some information about fostering and reminded us why these children need our help. Sue Jex from Care4Calais told us about their work providing supplies, education and social activities to refugees who have arrived ‘at the end of the road’ with nowhere to go. Audience members (and Sue herself) were brought to tears with the amazing stories of both the residents and the volunteers.
Tania Mathias, MP for Twickenham, then spoke about her work as a doctor with refugees and in warzones, and reminded us that despite the political turmoil at the moment, she and her colleagues are still prioritizing and working to support people caught up in the war in Syria.
Erin Pizzey, the founder of the domestic violence charity Refuge, spoke next. Erin told us of how, forty years ago, she had in the space of one night filled an abandoned hotel with refugees – and of how Richmond’s residents rallied round to help their new neighbours. Erin also emphasized the importance of peer support and co-habitation for survivors of trauma.
Next was Sulaiman Osman from Hikayetna who spoke about his charity’s work bringing people from Syria together in London to tell their stories and share their culture. Sulaiman introduced one such storyteller, Amir Darwish, who read three pieces of work. One poem, ‘Where are you from?’, dissected the notion of origin and showed how asking that question can promote feelings of not belonging and ‘otherness’.
Our final speakers were Narin and Nesrin, two teenagers from Syria. They described their horrendous journey which included seeing their father captured (to be imprisoned and tortured), fleeing their home, being imprisoned alongside their mother and three younger siblings, and massive fear and uncertainty as to what their futures would bring. The family are now reunited and settled in London, and the audience was captivated as they described their lives before they arrived in England, and their ambitions now that they are here.
Above all, our speakers reminded us of the reality of the war in Syria and its effects, and that we are working together simply to help people who are just unlucky enough to have found themselves in a war-torn place and needing to find safety.
After the performances and speakers we met some other groups of volunteers with similar aims – including Three Peas in a Pot, who travel to the camps in Greece when they can, bringing food, and Raidestos Library, who provide schoolbooks to refugees so that when they finally arrive in a safe place, they are not behind in their education – as well as many individual local Richmond residents who offered their help and support in providing a safe place for Syrian people fleeing war.
The event was a complete success, and the inspirational stories that we heard made us even more determined to carry on with what we are doing. Thank you to everyone that came and supported – let’s keep pressing forward.