Back in February, Jeff Britten sent a description of Haverfordwest, his town of 13,000 people in southwestern Wales, to a family of Syrian refugees living in Jordan.
“I ran around town and took pictures of the castle, the best bits, the River Cleddau,” Britten says. “I produced a map which showed the location of the house, and that everything was in walking distance, supermarkets, schools, a mosque. It was all there for them.”
He hoped the family, whom he contacted with the help of the Home Office, which controls U.K. immigration, would come live in Wales. At that stage, he knew little about them, only that they were Syrians recognized as refugees by the United Nations.
Britten is 71 and retired from the pharmaceutical industry. The idea to reach out to Syrian refugees came in late 2016, when he heard that two other Welsh villages had adopted refugees from the country, and he called a meeting in a Baptist chapel in his own town to inspire his neighbors to do the same.
“We all see these terrible pictures on our television screens and we think, ‘Crikey, you know, we should do something,” he says he told them. His neighbors agreed. And early last month, Haverfordwest welcomed its first Syrian refugee family.
The refugees have come to Wales as part of a community sponsorship program that began in the U.K. in 2016. A group of British citizens can commit to providing refugees help with housing, navigating schools and doctors, language and the job search.
Twenty-five Syrian refugee families have arrived and been settled so far in the U.K. via community sponsorship; of those, six families went to Wales. It’s a small figure, but it is growing. In the last couple of years, seven more groups in Wales have formed to bring in more refugees, according to Jonathan Cox, deputy director of Citizens U.K., which helps the groups organize.
In Haverfordwest, about 30 residents answered Britten’s call and signed up to sponsor the newcomers. To get Home Office approval, they had to raise 9,000 British pounds, about $12,000, and hold it in a bank account as proof that they could shoulder the immediate financial needs of supporting a family, beyond benefits provided by the state. They also had to find a home that would be available when the newcomers arrived.
Jenny Blackmore had worked with Syrian refugees in the nearby town of Narberth and noticed that housing was often a stumbling block to fulfilling the government’s conditions. Landlords had to keep their homes open while the Home Office processed the resettlement application, and the government paid a lower rental rate than the market could offer.
Blackmore’s mother had recently died and left her an inheritance. She invested it in a three-bedroom, two-story rowhouse in the center of Haverfordwest, with the aim of housing a refugee family.
“I decided it would be a sort of fitting legacy, really, to my mum and dad’s memory, to do something — yeah, it’s an investment for my family, but it’s also a kind of investment in people’s lives,” she says.
Once the local council and Home Office gave approval, the U.N. and British government identified a Syrian refugee family — a former headwaiter and his homemaker wife, who’d lived in a town near Damascus before they fled to Jordan. They had four children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 2 to 11.
The family arrived at Bristol Airport in the first week of May. Mark Bond, another member of the community sponsorship group, was there to meet them and drove the family to the home Blackmore had bought in Haverfordwest.
As the Syrians and Bond walked up to the front door, there was a standoff, he says.
“We were trying to usher them into their new home and they were insisting that we went in first,” Bond says.
The refugees prevailed and their community hosts walked in ahead of them. “Nobody is in charge and we’re all winging it,” Bond jokes.
The private sponsorship of refugees was pioneered in Canada in the late 1970s. Under the program, individuals and groups like religious or humanitarian organizations agree to give emotional and financial support to refugees for a year. Since Canada’s program began, nearly 300,000 privately sponsored refugees have arrived, according to Nancy Caron, spokesperson of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. (An additional 370,000 refugees arrived in that same period via government sponsorship).
Canada has encouraged the program overseas by developing training materials with support from the United Nations, the Open Society Foundations and other groups. Ottawa has also sent representatives to meet with would-be sponsors around the U.K., including in Wales. Britten attended one of the sessions and says he was inspired: “It is important to involve as many people from the community as we could, not just church people,” he says he learned.
Canada is also working with governments in Ireland, New Zealand and Argentina to develop community sponsorship programs in those countries.
Vicky Moller, an early advocate for the program in the U.K., lives in Cardigan, about an hour’s drive north of Haverfordwest in Wales. She volunteered in 2015 in Calais, in northern France, where migrants had camped out in hopes of reaching Britain.
At the time, the British government had agreed to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Moller joined Citizens U.K., which lobbied to bring in more by adopting Canada’s community sponsorship program.
“We need to bring more people but they need to be integrated, and then we feel we can breathe a sigh of relief and bring in the next family,” Moller says. “I think that every little village in Wales could have one or two families.”
Members of the Syrian family who settled in Haverfordwest weren’t available for an interview. But Syrian refugees who came to Wales earlier have helped some Welsh communities decide to open their doors.
Hussam Allahham, 35, fled Damascus, where he was a doctor, in 2013. He took a smuggler’s boat from Libya to Italy, and flew on a fake Lithuanian passport to Britain, where he claimed asylum. The government moved him to the Welsh capital Cardiff, he says.
Now Allahham works part-time for a refugee aid organization contracted by local councils in Wales. He also speaks with Welsh groups thinking about community sponsorship, including Narberth, near Haverfordwest.
“A lot of people, they haven’t heard about Syria. Even I spoke with people [and] they said, ‘Where is Syria?'” he says. “Some people thought it’s Siberia.”
Syrian refugees, especially those from large cities, can find Wales equally disorienting. It’s a mostly rural, white, Christian area, with small villages of a few thousand people. Some refugee families learn once they arrive that their children will have to study in the Welsh language, which some find challenging. (The name of Britten’s group is Croeso Hwlffordd or Welcome Haverfordwest).
To new arrivals, Allaham offers this advice:
“I tell them, ‘Imagine you’d done a lot of things, a hard job before you came here, you tried hard to survive. So now you will have a rest, so give yourself six months,'” he says.
Moller says she encountered the language problem with a family she helped sponsor in Cardigan. The children learn through Welsh, she says, “and the parents were not happy about that. They were shocked.”
The challenge is that in some small villages, there are few other options for education. Moller says she is helping the family negotiate a solution: “They said, ‘We respect Wales, we love the Welsh language, but please learn English first!’ “
The community sponsorship program came into effect the same year that Britain voted to leave the European Union. One driver of the Brexit vote was voters’ fears of too many immigrants.
Britten, who first reached out to the Syrian family that settled in Haverfordwest, voted for Brexit because he suspected the distant E.U. government in Brussels wasted his money. But he loves the personal nature of community sponsorship. “There’s a closeness, but not too much closeness,” he says.
His wife Sharon is a “first friend,” responsible for helping the family get the children to school for the first week, accompanying them to the grocery store and showing them how to use the washing machine and dishwasher. “They’d never seen a microwave before,” Jeff Britten says.
The couple brought their children’s old books to help the four newly arrived Syrian children learn English.
After the refugee family arrived in Haverfordwest, the mother became homesick, Britten says. With the help of a translator, he tried to reassure her. “Your children are safe,” he told her.
He pauses and nearly cries.
“I just feel a tremendous empathy and sympathy for these people,” he says.
He says the children call him “Jiddi” — Arabic for “my grandfather.”