Living as a Refugee in Cornwall
A law student, a chef, a young mother. Annissa Warsame reports on the Syrian women building new lives in small town Cornwall.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
Rufayda* makes the biggest impression. She arrived in Cornwall three years ago. She studies English three days a week, volunteers part-time, all the while taking care of her three young children. Every day she drives herself to learn 20 new words. For Rufayda, education is twinned with any notion of success. At 20 she is just a year older than me.
For a refugee, settling in the UK is far from the end of their long, perilous journey. Once settled, one journey is over and another begins. The journey of starting life anew is, for many refugees, the more difficult endeavour. Settling and starting from scratch in a foreign country and learning a new language are just some of the difficulties they face.
Constantly feeling like a fish out of water, many seek comfort by moving to Britain’s culturally diverse cities. But what if you are resettled in a rural region like Cornwall? While you may be fortunate to reside in quaint and idyllic coastal towns, you may also be confronted with varying degrees of ignorance and a lack of diversity. Recorded cases of hate crime motivated by religion rose by 30 per cent in Devon and Cornwall, according to government statistics published last October.
With this in mind, I set out to see what life in Cornwall is like for refugees. Along the way I embarked on a sobering journey of my own.
The Cornwall Faith Forum supports refugees with the issues they face as they resettle in Cornwall. They aim to “provide the day-to-day resources needed by refugees already resettled, from conversations to ironing boards.”
The day I arrive in Truro, the sky is overcast. I'm greeted outside the Forum meeting space by Rita Stephen, an Interfaith Development Worker working with the Syrian refugee families that have been resettled in Cornwall.
Rita's organisation hosts weekly coffee mornings to provide a safe, familiar and comforting social space for the refugee families. The Forum is held in the hall of a local church, decorated with religious iconography like ceramic ornaments of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus Christ. An interesting choice of venue, the families are all Muslim.
That day Rita comes bearing gifts and spreads them across the kitchen counter. Her assortment of treats is particular; full-fat milk, similar to the milk the women drank in Syria, cherry cake, chocolate biscuits, Waitrose Essential tea bags, Kenco instant coffee and a variety of fruits to offset the sweet treats.
At first, I’m apprehensive, I wander around the hall deliberating on how best to approach the families, anxious not to ask anything that might retraumatise them. I think about a story I had read the day before, about the UN (rightly) barring journalists from interviewing Rohingyan refugees due to reporters yelling in camps: “Has anybody in here been raped?” This callous and invasive questioning risked retraumatising refugees, and led me to question my own ethics as a journalist.
Back in Cornwall, in the church hall, the women strike me as remarkably sharp and articulate, with the little bits of Arabic I comprehend. When they use their limited English, it is pointed and well-considered.
I gather the courage to introduce myself.
The families have hugely diverse backgrounds. One woman studied law at Aleppo University before the war. Another had a husband who was a Chef abroad in Egypt, while they lived in Syria. The family are now trying to set up a restaurant in Cornwall.
I listen to Rufayda's story. Back in her hometown Hama, a city just north of Damascus, she had her first child at 16. But her education was so crucial to her family that her mother would take care of her children so that she could attend school. The war put a stop to her education, she was forced to flee.
Rufayda tells me how Hama was largely a quiet suburban area, and how that has helped her adjust to life in Cornwall. She dislikes cities because of how “busy and chaotic” they are. She longs for the quiet and the measured pace of a town.
She hopes someday to go to university – an opportunity robbed from her in Syria because of the conflict.
As the day progresses, I get stuck in, and begin to feel a part of this community created by Rita and her colleagues. It is St. Piran’s day. Lucy, a day-volunteer, wants to show videos and images of this regional holiday, but is struggling to get her MacBook to work. I bring up images on my phone instead.
The women and children – the husbands absent, apart from one, due to their full-time work – ooh and aah at the pictures and video clips. Curious about this foreign culture and tradition, one woman, Safiya*, says, “Parade here… today?” and is overjoyed to discover that she can watch the parade live in 50 minutes from the high street.
Aside from the history lesson, Jenny – another day volunteer – talks practicalities with one of the women: how are they finding getting to the doctors, can they make the appointments okay?
This work is crucial, Rita tells me, “as soon as you are confident enough to go to the doctor, you find yourself less vulnerable.” A few women tell me about their progress: they can go alone to the GP, book a doctor’s appointment, or have mastered other tasks we take for granted, such as using public transport.
Later, I learn that some of the children are being racially abused in their schools. I cannot go into any detail as these are ongoing incidents. But Rita tells me the cultural ignorance is a problem because here in Cornwall, “What they [the community] learn about other cultures is from the TV. People can’t learn from their friends, because of how little diversity there is.” Rita says that diversity is “the best way to learn.”
That's why these events hosted for the refugees are so necessary. All the families have generally been resettled in different towns, far from each other. There is little support network for them. When they arrive, the families are confronted with a completely different landscape and they are painfully conscious of their Syrian refugee status.
One woman, Sumaya* has chosen to stop attending her English language lessons, preferring instead to focus on her role as a housewife and mother. Her story strikes a chord with me. Often, back home in Birmingham, many female refugees who abstain from taking English lessons do so with for a myriad of underlying reasons.
The trauma of fleeing one’s home due to civil war can mean that their language and culture is the only thing they have to cling onto. When you can’t take your home with you, language is something you can carry across borders. For many, settling in Britain is temporary, so they do not feel the need to learn the language.
When you can’t take your home with you, language is something you can carry across borders
One volunteer tells me of her motivations for volunteering: “to give back and do something useful.” Later in conversation she also mentions that she is writing a research proposal on the benefits of play therapy for refugee children.
It dawns on me, that between the volunteer and myself, we are all trying to do some good. But none of us are selfless. For instance, I am there in the capacity of a reporter to pen their stories for a piece I’ll soon publish online. I probably would not have come to Truro, had I not this piece to write.
And in the composition of this piece, I realise just what refugees have to deal with on a daily basis. Their identity as a refugee comes before their identity as a person. And, with this may come discrimination or an infantilization of their character. People may flock to help or ridicule their plight. Either way, it is a world away from their past lives in Syria.
Between the volunteer and myself, we are all trying to do some good. But none of us are selfless. I realise just what refugees have to deal with on a daily basis. Their identity as a refugee comes before their identity as a person. And with this may come discrimination or an infantilisation of their character.
Towards the end of the coffee morning, I join Rita on her outing to West Cornwall, to drop off Aaliyah* and her daughter, four-year old Jasmine*. Aaliyah loves Poundland, the “pound-shop” she calls it and is keen to visit and pick up some milk to make cheese, and yoghurt to make Labneh, a soft cream cheese.
In the car, Aaliyah and I joke about the practical struggles of living as a Muslim in Cornwall. We discuss the lack of halal meat, which has forced many (me) into pescatarianism. I learn that the families take turns to travel to Plymouth fortnightly for a huge Levantine food haul, for items such as Za’atar, Lebanese bread, and halal meat.
Apple crumble or fish pie doesn’t cut it. Aaliyah's family long for their Levantine favourites such as Labneh and Fattoush. “I love Fattoush”, Aaliyah says. “For Iftaar** in Syria, we used to eat it every day.”
This is the routine Aaliyah and the other families have become accustomed to. They navigate Cornish life, one day at a time.
And for now, as the clouds turn to rain, this cursory glance into their lives is suspended. We had come together for this moment over coffee and cake, and promise to meet another day.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed
**Iftaar, the evening meal that breaks one's fast during the holy month of Ramadan
This piece was first published by The Falmouth Anchor whose Editor in Chief is Annissa.
Annissa Warsame is Shine A Light's first Bright Young Reporter, a special project designed to tackle exclusion and train young reporters from backgrounds under-represented in investigative journalism.
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