Marwa Belghazi, Syrian Refugee Service Team Manager

SHP has been welcoming refugees to the UK since 2016. This Refugee Week, Marwa Belghazi, a Team Manager for SHP's Syrian Refugee Service, has blogged about the work we're doing to help welcome refugees to the UK, with a focus on how we're helping them to get ready for employment. 

Imagine having to flee your home country because it wasn’t safe anymore. Imagine finding yourself living in a temporary camp with your family, before arriving in a strange country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand how anything works. You’ve had to leave everything behind – family and friends, your home you career and your belongings – and rebuild your life from scratch.

That’s the situation the refugee families we work with find themselves in.

More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country

Since it began in 2011, the brutal Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and torn the nation apart. More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees. Through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, the UK government is resettling 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugee families, including survivors of torture and violence and those in need of medical care. Many are suffering the effects of trauma having witnessed violent atrocities.

It’s our job to make sure the resettlement process goes as smoothly as possible. Part of the support we offer to the family involves helping them navigate the welfare system, register with GPs, get the healthcare they need, enrol their children in schools and nurseries, and helping them to start thinking about finding work.

People are especially eager to find a job and to reconnect with that part of their identity as providers for their families. Addressing local authority representatives at a recent event, members of our refugee families repeated one after the other: “We do not want to be a burden on you - please trust that we intend to work and give back to this society.”

Despondence and a feeling of failure

But given the many barriers and challenges to navigate, this can take time. Slow progress can lead to frustration, as the initial excitement is gradually replaced by despondence and a feeling of failure. I’ve had people ask me: “How am I ever going to find a job?” and even in some cases: “Why did you bring me here?”

Being displaced is a major change, and it is understandable that people often cling on to past areas of life they are familiar with, especially jobs – some of the refugees we work with have been lawyers, psychologists, nurses, teachers, chefs and in one case, an ice cream van driver in their previous lives. They hope to be able to do the same thing again, wouldn’t you? This is completely understandable as they are trying to replicate the life they once had – but it can also pose an obstacle in terms of having realistic goals.

Successful careers and businesses

Feeling ‘stuck’ when it comes to getting a job can trickle over into other aspect of their lives. Many of the people we work with have enjoyed successful careers and businesses in their country of origin. It is difficult for adults who have spent their lives being independent, providing for their families and playing a role in society to find themselves suddenly relying on other people to provide them with support.

So finding work, and the sense of purpose this can bring, is a big priority. But where do you even start, when someone is only just embarking on learning the language?

A big part of our role is to provide continuous support in navigating a new system. We run weekly outreach surgeries where we discuss the frustrations that families encounter in their daily life in the UK. We discuss the practicalities of work contracts, minimum and living wage, tax and national insurance, as well as addressing the gap that sometimes appears between an individual’s expectations and the reality they may face.

Traumas endured and the after-effects of displacement

Sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that although a person has all the skills needed to find employment, they might not be psychologically ready to enter work. The traumas they have endured and the after-effects of displacement can require lengthy processes of healing. Mental health support often goes hand in hand with helping someone restore the function of providing for the family.

Experiencing setbacks doesn’t mean giving up. Having an application rejected can be very distressing and discouraging, so we encourage feedback from employers or partner organisations so that the person understands the reason for that outcome.

We’re starting to see some success stories. By building up on the momentum around citizens and organization’s interested in helping refugees we have harnessed the interest of institutions, agencies and individuals to turn them into potential employers. Peer support is another important aspect, and we encourage a culture of peer mentoring and mutual support to share strategies that result in getting into work.

A big added bonus

We must not forget that speaking another language, and the experiences that refugees have been through, can also be a big added bonus. Recently, we helped one of the refugees we work with start work at a nursery, as a translator and offering support to a child who had been placed there from another family. Here, language wasn’t the only benefit – an understanding of what the child was going through was something no other candidate could offer.

We’re also working with the families to set up a social enterprise catering firm, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute – whether that’s through cooking, logistics, admin or marketing. We strive to offer continuous support, and remain positive in the face of adversity.

With more than 200 people welcomed to London already, and a further 60 at least on their way – we have a long way to go.