During Refugee Week, we are launching a new feature, to promote the work of Refugee Community Organisations within Oxfordshire. We interviewed members of these groups and asked them what the theme for Refugee Week this year, Healing, means to them. This week, we hear from the Syrian Sisters.

The civil war in Syria displaced millions of people, who fled to all the surrounding countries.
From there, some were accepted for resettlement in the UK. Though the UK offered a safe
haven, it was not easy for the new arrivals to adjust to a very different society and culture. It
was a particular challenge for women, most of whom spoke no English, and some of whom
were illiterate and lacked marketable skills.

The Syrian Sisters group was started in 2016 to support Syrian women and to help them and their families integrate into life in the UK. The group received some initial funding from Asylum Welcome and has since worked with other local organisations such as Refugee Resource, Aspire and Multaka (which uses the Oxford museum collections to bring together local residents from different backgrounds) as well as with the British Red Cross and Oxfam.

The group has a weekly meeting in Rose Hill Community Centre, with between 15 and 20 women attending each week. English courses have been run by the university, designed for women with babies and small children who have difficulties attending college-based
courses. Syrian sisters has also organised lectures on welfare benefits, jobs and how to organise events and activities for community members and the wider public.

An early and important initiative was a 6 week training in food hygiene which has provided the group with formal certification in food safety. This has enabled Syrian Sisters to provide catering at community events, at Flo’s Café in Florence Park and as the Damascus Rose kitchen in the Old Fire Station. As well as providing some income, it’s a good way for group members to meet and speak with other people. Similarly, members of the group have learned jewellery making from a local resident which they sell on Sundays at the Wolvercote Community Market.

This year’s Refugee Week theme of ‘healing’ has a significant meaning for Syrians who saw everything that was familiar to them and a source of security and comfort destroyed in a brutal war. Mariam Karah Ahmad, the current coordinator of the group, explains that Syrian Sisters helps to keep alive the new arrivals’ connection to home and to important social traditions, such as visiting new mothers or the sick. A WhatsApp group has been formed as a modern way of keeping in touch: “It’s a way that women can always know that they’re not alone and can ask for help when they need it.”

Mariam points out how the Friday get-togethers in Rose Hill contribute to healing. They give women the opportunity to talk through their problems in their mother tongue with people who have gone through similar experiences. In a second language the right words simply aren’t there. This is especially helpful for members of the group who have greater difficulty communicating in English and forming close friendships outside the community. Mariam speaks of several elderly group members who have lost children in the war. For them the Friday gathering is an essential source of support, as the only time in the week when they can get together and speak freely and easily with other Syrian women.

You can follow the Syrian Sisters on instagram here