“‘You would do this for me,’ is the response we all give to the question, ‘Why are you doing this?’” says Muna Ausat, one of a group of Falkirk residents who helps to welcome new Scots into the community here, predominantly from Syria.
“If the tables were turned and I arrived in a country to start a new life, with nothing, would any of these people refuse to offer me help?”
It’s a rhetorical question of course; Muna has made fast friends with a number of the families who have arrived here since she became involved around four years ago, initially to offer English lessons via Scotland Welcomes Refugees (“although we don’t use the term ‘refugees’”) and by offering her home for temporary accommodation. Leaving a corporate life in London five years ago for a better lifestyle here in Falkirk, Muna is a community and social activist who is passionate about supporting displaced people. The diverse group of other local people similarly motivated are now in the process of formalising their support into a registered charity, “Friends of Scottish Settlers” (FOSS).
the supports offered by members of the community are the kinds of things you would do for your friends and neighbours.
Whilst Falkirk Council has the responsibility for co-ordinating housing, children’s services, employment and social work, the supports offered by members of the community are the kinds of things you would do for your friends and neighbours. “I’ve met families when they come to the mosque, invited them home, organised lunch, presents for the children, and so on,” explains Muna. “I was volunteering at the Falkirk Foodbank when the first families arrived, and I was tasked with making up food donations that would make them feel more welcome, for example substituting tinned spaghetti hoops with couscous and grains. I had to learn about Syrian food; it’s been a wonderful learning curve in many ways in fact, and a fantastic community to be part of.” Speaking of Syrian food, one of the issues they come across is that our “standard issue” set of saucepans are never big enough for cooking the typical Syrian dinner!
The community includes, amongst others, the head of the Falkirk Muslim Forum; Al Masaar in Falkirk (a charity that focuses on women with young children, and organises weekend football); Falkirk Trinity Church, and the Polmont Quakers. FOSS plans to pull together the various strands of work that these organisations are doing, as well as augmenting the wonderful work done locally by the Rainbow Ladies, with the aim of all the individuals and groups pooling resources to provide a more coherent and comprehensive welcome and support network for the new Scots.
Everyone’s story is different, but most of the families who arrive have been out of Syria for at least four years; fours years of displacement, being away from family, children’s education disrupted, not able to settle and put down roots. So being helped to integrate into a friendly network means a huge amount. Muna mentions some recent examples, such as parents with young children being helped to find out what their children need for school; understanding correspondence from the school; how the bus timetables work; making doctors appointments; those with teens getting help to arrange work experience from the networks of longer term members of the community, and so on.
"Fours years of displacement, being away from family, children’s education disrupted, not able to settle and put down roots. So being helped to integrate into a friendly network means a huge amount."
Cultural and social trips are also on the agenda. They recently organised a trip to Stirling Castle for a number of Syrian families, hosted by The Conservation Volunteers and Historic Environment Scotland. Learning about the natural and historic culture of Scotland is a vital – and fun – part of the integration journey. Muna had invited the local diversity officer from the police service to join them on the trip too to help promote the role of the police service here, which is very likely to be different from where they have come from!
A neighbouring organisation, Forth Valley Welcome, provides a regular “Snack and Chat” meet ups for new Scots, and they have a befriending scheme in place. FOSS would love to get to the stage where they can offer befrienders in Falkirk, so that every new Scot here has a buddy for those everyday questions and one to one conversations. “It’s also important that the direction for the activities and guidance we provide comes from the new Scots themselves, not us organising things based on what we think they need!” says Muna.
Ultimately the aim is for new Scots to be fully integrated with their own networks, and to get involved in supporting the next families to arrive; and that is already happening.
All the elected members have been hugely supportive. Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn was due to speak at the FOSS launch event this month (it has been postponed– new date to be announced as soon as possible) and other councillors and MSPs have been very positive about the activities FOSS provides.
Please follow the FOSS facebook page “FOSS - Friends of Scottish Settlers” for more information and to get in touch and keep up to date. The FOSS launch event will be publicised as soon as possible, and will include speakers and delicious Syrian pastries!
Would you like to be involved?
If you are interested in getting involved in this wonderful community in any way please get in touch with FOSS. They are particularly looking for people who can help with befriending, but there are plenty of group and activities to help out with in life-after-Covid-19
Article in Konect April 2020
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer