For the new arrivals to Britain, what happens next?


"Once you are a refugee, you are always a refugee - you carry it around like baggage wherever you go."

So says Peter Salomon, the former chair of the Barnet Refugee Service (BRS). He and his team have supported more than 8,000 refugees from Europe, Africa and Asia, who have arrived in the north London borough over the past decade.

They will help in the resettling of 50 Syrian refugees who are due to arrive in the borough later this month under government plans to take in 20,000 over the next five years.

The service, which is based in Colindale and marked its 10th anniversary last month, has more than 70 volunteers on its books, many of them Jewish.

Mr Salomon, whose father was a refugee who fled Nazi Germany, believes that Jews have "an absolute duty to help refugees". He said: "What is the difference between one refugee and another? Whether you are fleeing from Austria or fleeing from Syria, it is the same experience.

"People arrive and they are vulnerable. My father made a good living here and had a good life, but the rejection was always there - you could see it in his eyes."

Mr Salomon said refugees' initial experience on arriving in the the UK could be "pretty grim".

Their first port of call was the doctor, he said. "They will often be arriving with all sorts of ailments - not because they are sick, but because of the journey they have had," he explained.

"For some, the journey could have been just getting on and off a plane, but usually it is across continent, in the back of a truck, at the hands of traffickers. It is awful."

The BRS puts them in touch with a local GP and teaches them about healthcare in the UK, working closely with NHS Barnet and Barnet Council.

Next is housing - something, Mr Salomon said, that continues to be a "huge challenge".

"The refugees begin in emergency housing, and tend to be put in places that are awaiting refurbishment. It depends case by case how long it will take them to get permanent housing, but it is usually a long time. London is bad, but Barnet is particularly bad."

Once that process has begun, next on the list is education - not only for the refugee children, who are put in local schools, but also for adults, who may have arrived without being able to speak a word of English.

"What is amazing is how quickly the children learn English. They adapt incredibly quickly," he said.

But for adults, it can be a different story. "You could have people arriving from, say, Afghanistan, who have never been in a classroom in their lives.

"They are illiterate, so the teaching of English is very challenging, but so important. We have classes that are run entirely by volunteers, but they cannot run regularly, because a lot of the refugees have terribly chaotic lives. It can be a very slow process."

The red tape, Mr Salomon explained, at times feels never-ending. Securing a job and a permanent residence is particularly mired in bureaucracy.

Refugees can apply for "indefinite leave to remain" after five years in the UK. Mr Salomon said: "The difficulty is that they are not allowed to work at first. They are only allowed to after they have been here for a certain amount of time. This has always been a bugbear, because the refugees want to work and it is better for society if they are working."

For this reason, most of the refugees who are helped by the BRS - which welcomes approximately 300 new arrivals every year - put hours back into the service as volunteers. This can help them gain the experience they need to be allowed to work in the future.

But the real issue is gaining permanent residence.

Mr Salomon explained: "Prior to what has happened in Syria, it has been government policy to make it as hard as possible for people to be granted the right to remain and work. The idea is, 'let's discourage them'."

The refugees are eventually invited to appear in front of a tribunal after being granted very limited access to legal aid. The BRS invites lawyers to act for the refugees on a pro bono basis. It also advises them on how the system works.

"They have to stand in front of a tribunal, which is working to a legal system they know nothing about," he said. "They have no idea, so nine times out of 10 they are rejected. They then have to go to appeal. The process is so haphazard."

Mr Salomon said that most of the people he works with will never feel settled. While some are only granted temporary residence, so "for five years or so feel they can't get on with their lives", others who have been denied the right to stay here simply "disappear and go off the grid".

"What else can they do?" he said. "Who knows what happens to them?"

Even those refugees who are granted the right to stay in the UK feel nervous and unsettled.

"If you have a celebration or something, there will be those among us who will be terrified of being photographed, because they think there is always someone watching them. They don't want to give their real names."

The process is arduous and stressful, meaning social and mental support is just as important as helping tackle the bureaucracy. For this reason, the BRS works closely with the NHS on issues of mental health. They also visit local synagogues and other public spaces to try to counter "fearmongering in the media" about refugees.

"It is a distorted way of looking at humanity," he said. "We have so much more in common than what separates us. The roles can change from day to day.

"The history of mankind is migration," he added. "Every holy book is based on it; people migrate. We've just got to deal with it. It is up to us to make their lives just a bit more bearable."

● Alyth Synagogue hosted training for 50 community leaders involved in the resettlement of Syrian refugees across the country. The shul, in the borough of Barnet, was used as a resettlement centre for Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s.

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