Dalya and her three young children finally left their adopted home in Lebanon five months ago.
They had been afraid to go out of their house.
So life in Herne Hill must be strange – especially because it’s been paid for by contributions from hundreds of well-wishers – the neighbours who live around them in their new home.
The community in the area have also collected £9,000 to pay for the newcombers’ rent, English lessons and resettlement costs.
It must have been even stranger when 300 residents packed into Herne Hill Baptist Church last week and everyone stood to applaud this small new family of South London residents.
Dalya and her family, originally from Iraq, were being introduced last week to to all the people who helped make it happen, through Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees (HHWR). And she and her three children thanked them in the most heartfelt way.
She told the packed hall: “My children are learning English and I feel like a new person but more than that it’s a new life and a new beginning. It’s only possible because you have all cared about other people. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
“One year ago it wasn’t easy to see my world as half-full – except for my three lovely children. I was away from the rest of my family. We were not going to school. One bedroom wasn’t a nice place to be. Going outside made us afraid. Life was difficult.
“Then eight months ago I had a phone call from the United Nations. We were going to the UK. Here was our chance to leave sad memories behind. Now I still have sad memories but they’ve been pushed into the corner of my mind by happy memories. The children are in school, on the playground and in the park. They’ve been on the London Eye and to the London Aquarium. They have been riding their bikes.
“And we have a lovely house. We have very special friends. I wish I could thank all of you but that would take a long time. You are all just like me – you care about other people in the world that is easier to care when you have a home, food, safety – and hope.”
The family had spent the last three years in Lebanon, and before that with Dalya’s sister in Bagdad.
Dalya’s son said: “She took care of us – she was like a second mother to us – when mum went to hospital. She was very brave. She’s the best cook in the world – well, the second best in the world.
“Now I’ve got special new friends, I thank you very much.”
HHWR leafleted 5,000 homes in the area asking for help in January 2018 – and took two stalls in Herne Hill Market. There was a 35 page application with 14 appendices. They needed a sponsor and found one in Citizens UK – a community organisation campaigning for refugee settlement
When the application was approved by the Home Office 10 months later, they were told at a meeting at Lambeth council offices.
Co-founder Rachel Griffiths said: “We’ve been changed in different ways by this experience – I’ve had my privilege and prejudices challenged. This is reciprocal. The effect is phenomenal. It has enabled me to get to know my community and get to know my neighbours.
“When I saw the list of things which we had to achieve it looked hard. But I thought it was possible – especially in Herne Hill. You cannot do this on your own though.
“Harriet Lamb and Nick Jeyarajah and I sat around my kitchen table before all this started and thought what we wanted to do – how do we begin. We were not a constituted group – we were just neighbours.
“We were like [Liverpool manager} Jurgen Klopp facing an impossible task [they needed to beat Barcelona 4-0 to reach the Champions League final]. He said ‘It looks impossible but looking at you in the room, I know it is possible’.
“This was not about offering your own home or campaigning for asylum seekers. This is a family of refugees and they have a right to remain. We found a fantastic group of people and in December last year Dalya and her children arrived. Lambeth council said to be careful, but they made it as easy as possible.”
Four home owners came forward with offers – so two of these were passed onto other community sponsorship groups – one in Lambeth, one in Southwark. Herne Hill’s has been made available at housing benefit rates for two years.
Head of HHWR housing team Nathan Stephenson said: “One day I came home to a flyer. I got in touch with Rachel and we had the first committee meeting in her house. We had people who excelled in all facets of life. We were offered six houses. London can be quite harsh. But the kindness and generosity was something quite special. We soon secured a three-bedroom house. I got to know amazing people.
“People came together from all sorts of different backgrounds with one common goal.
“When we were told our application had been approved, there was real excitement but also nerves. We could only get access to the property two weeks before the family arrived. It was pretty manic. We had problems with the gas safety and floor boards have to be ripped up 18 hours before the family moved in.
“At times we never thought it would come together but because 70 people gave so much we made it. I was in tears the night before. It was something that was so incredible, it couldn’t be repeated. The welcoming committee at the airport were no doubt full of nerves and emotions – just like the family were. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. In the future, I can always look walk past the front door and say I was part of that.”
United Nations High Commission for Refugees chose the family.UNHCR lawyer Max McClellan said: “It is inspiring to see local people addressing global situations. To see this type of creativity at a local level is fantastic. In 2018 there were 25.4 million refugees around the world – 85% of them living in developing countries.
“UNHCR provide help to save lives; to preserve human rights and improve the future of refugees. Resettlement is a key component in that. It’s a life-saving tool. It is not available to all refugees – fewer than 1% will be resettled this way. But since 2016, the number of places has shrunk by more than 50% to 55,500.
“Communities like you are incredibly important for dealing with refugee situations globally. This enables communities to understand refugees and their particular need for protection. UNHCR help the government design this scheme. The UK has become a model of international practice in community sponsorship. Other countries are looking at the UK as a model – Germany, New Zealand, Spain and Ireland. We see a growing sense of community sponsorship.
“At the airport we met for people who have shaped our lives for the better.”
Actress Trudie Goodwin, who played Sgt June Ackland in The Bill for 24 years, was a part of the publicity drive at the beginning of the initiative. She said: “Like probably almost everyone I felt very concerned about the refugee situation and what was happening in front of us on TV – then looking at our lives and thinking how lucky we are and probably thinking we should be doing more. This seemed like the perfect opportunity and it came up at the same time. I found it an unbelievably rewarding experience. To get a family here and the work involved and the commitment by everyone has been massive. It was an incredible feeling of community cohesion when they arrived. It is a cliché but it was the best Christmas present. And when everything was ok – it was such a relief.”
MP for Dulwich and West Norwood Helen Hayes said: “The community sponsorship scheme began in 2015 when we all watched the crisis unfold on our TVs.Every second I was getting emails from constituents asking was the government going to do something. I have received more emails on this subject than on anything other than Brexit. “People were offering rooms in their homes and practical support and money. People from this community wanted to do something. But there wasn’t a channel for them to do it.
“This family have arrived to be settled in the UK fleeing from a life of danger.
“I felt daunted about the money needed and the need to find housing because there is already a crisis in housing. It has been inspiring to see people come together -people who didn’t know each other – to offer support in the community and jump through the hoops required.
“It is lovely to see other schemes in Peckham and Abraham’s Tent in Lambeth running alongside each other with the same enthusiasm.
“A couple of weeks ago it became obvious on Twitter that two groups were going to run into each other at the airport, bringing their respective families to homes in the UK.
“What you have done represents the best of humanity – offering your own resources to help someone else. It recognises the human connection between all of us.
“If anyone of us had to flee their home because of an accident of geography we would all hope there was someone in the world willing to offer space and sanctuary if we need it.
“We are in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. It’s hard to understand the of complexity of reasons why people had to flee.
“Community sponsorship does make us better citizens. But it can’t be a substitute for government responsibility to welcome more refugees then they are doing at the moment. This scheme has the potential to increase the pressure for the government to do something.
“In a wealthy country, when there’s a real welcome, absolutely everyone is blessed by that. Canada has settled 40,000 refugees through community sponsorship – 1 in 7 Canadians have been involved.
“People of Herne Hill didn’t know each other before. But looking for support and raising significant amounts of money has changed that. At every event there has been a few more people who wanted to contribute. We discovered there’s more support than was needed. So two other homes have become available to us for other South London community sponsorship groups.
“There is nothing that makes me more proud than the work I’ve seen over last 18 months. You can be assured of my support with everything that goes on from now.”
Pictured: Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees founders Harriet Lamb, Nathan Stevenson, Rachel Griffiths and Nick Jeyarajah with Dulwich and West Norwood MP Helen Hayes