Sussex villagers who took Syria to their hearts

Tom Serpell welcoming a gathering of East Hoathly and Halland Village of Sanctuary (EHVS) volunteers and Syrian guests.
Photo credit: Nic Serpell-Rand, serpell-rand.com

Syrians fleeing their war-torn country have had a mixed reception in Britain – depicted as besieging our borders in Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster. Elsewhere they have been welcomed, and in some unexpected quarters. Such as the leafy Sussex villages of East Hoathly and Halland.

The villages (pop 1,600) may seem an unlikely link in a chain that stretches over 2,500 miles to the dusty plains of Syria. And yet East Hoathly – notable as the birthplace of one of the founder members of rock group Genesis, Tony Banks, and home to the 18th century diarist Thomas Turner – joined its smaller neighbour Halland in offering a helping hand.

The human cost of the Syrian crisis is movingly captured by the 2019 award-winning film For Sama, which documents the life of Waad Al-Kateab, her doctor husband Hamza and baby daughter Sama, who are forced to flee the siege of the Syrian city of Aleppo, along with three million fellow refugees. 

The exodus prompted the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to persuade the EU to set up the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Programme. For our part, the UK launched the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) in January 2014, later aiming to resettle 20,000 Syrians in need of protection.

The reality is rather different: to date, only a small percentage of that promised number have been resettled around the UK. The initial outpouring of sympathy has given way to hysteria about ‘illegal migrants’ fanned by newspaper headlines. So it is refreshing to discover that many groups and individuals are working in support of refugees and recent arrivals, going about their work quietly and under the radar. That welcome was extended by the City of Sanctuary movement, the first one set up in Sheffield. Since then many others – including Brighton – have taken up the banner. And in East Hoathly and Halland, Sussex can boast its very first joint Village of Sanctuary.

Keen to do something to help, but anxious not to just look like “a woolly group of well-meaning retired people” as chairperson Tom Serpell puts it, they cast around for the sort of organisation they might aspire to be. City of Sanctuary UK was very encouraging, and in 2016 the villages went ahead and established an unincorporated organisation with three ambitions in their constitution: to provide a welcome for refugees; to raise awareness and donations for refugees; and to campaign to get more generous treatment of refugees by local and national government.

Serpell admits that rural Sussex might not seem to provide the most fertile ground for a sanctuary group. But you have to know your community, he says, and have confidence that you can rely on a core group of supporters. 

He describes his own village, East Hoathly, as very welcoming, with many members of the community sharing his passionate concern about the fate of the Syrian refugees fleeing war.   

Four years on and their experience is an object lesson in how to adapt to circumstances. Their local council, Wealden, has struggled to fulfil its commitment to accept 40 Syrian refugees under VPRS, largely because of the lack of affordable accommodation in the area. To date, no Syrian families have been based in East Hoathly. 

A close up of a sign

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Welcome to East Hoathly.
Photo credit: East Hoathly and Halland Village of Sanctuary on Facebook

Undaunted, the committee set about organising fundraising events and social gatherings for refugee families in the wider area. They organised children’s parties, talks, and concerts of Syrian music. Tom emphasised the need for families settled in rural areas to have contact with others: “They sometimes get dumped into places that are far from appropriate, in the middle of nowhere. One family, who spoke no English and had a special needs child, were settled in a village with no public transport, no shop, no school or pharmacy.”

The parties and social events were “joyous and memorable” he said, and very successful in raising money for refugee causes – £10,000 over four years. The Covid-19 crisis has put a halt to all gatherings for now, so the group is planning a Syrian cookbook to raise further funds, with recipes provided by refugee families and contributions by a couple of celebrity chefs. The book will be available in September.

The group also has networks with others across Sussex, recognising the need to build political influence and a wide community of support for refugees. They work closely with Refugee Tales, and Hastings Community Sanctuary group, and Tom also volunteers with that town’s Refugee Buddy Project.

Waad Al-Kateab and her family finally made it to safety and settled in London, while her film has done much to promote international understanding of the plight of Syrian refugees. In Sussex, two small villages are also doing their bit to carry that through.

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