Friendly Lancashire attracting more refugees
It was a simple gesture, but for frightened Syrian refugee Ahlam Hasan it meant the world.
No sooner had she arrived in Lancashire from her war-torn homeland than a neighbour knocked on the door and offered the young mum a cake, specially baked as a welcome present.
“That changed my life and the lives of my family,” said Ahlam. “It just meant so much.”
The open arms which greeted Ahlam, her husband and three children epitomised the reception now being afforded to a host of refugees and asylum seekers in a county famous for its generosity.
There are almost 1,200 escapees from conflict currently being supported in the comparitive safety of Lancashire.
Their harrowing stories are as varied as the troublespots they have fled from. But they have one thing in common - a love of their new home and the people who have welcomed them in.
“The response to these vulnerable people has been absolutely massive,” said Saulo Cwerner, who co-ordinates the Lancashire Refugee Resettlement Programmes for the county council.
“To be honest I couldn’t have asked for any more. We are seeing an increase in the numbers staying and settling in Lancashire, so something must be going well.”
Saulo was one of the key speakers at an asylum and refugee conference in Preston last week. It was the first of its kind in the county and the organisers were overwhelmed by the turnout.
British Red Cross worker Wonder Phiri, once an asylum seeker himself from Zimbabwe, said: “Lancashire is more welcoming compared to other areas of the country - it’s the culture up here in the north.
“When I arrived I lived in London. But I had a few trips up north and I decided this was the place to be. It’s much better, totally different to down south. The people here are more human-friendly.”
Lancashire currently hosts around 880 asylum seekers. More than 330 of those live in the Blackburn with Darwen area, but Preston has the second largest number with an estimated 176. South Ribble has just nine and Chorley 20. Lancaster is hosting 85.
Saulo, who helped organise the Preston conference at the Gujurat Hindu Society and Community Centre in South Meadow Lane, said that on top of those figures the county had almost 300 people who had been supported by the Syrian Resettlement Programme.
“Lancashire decided collectively to pledge to resettle up to 500 before 2020, so that’s more than half our pledge already. It is going really well. We’ve had a really positive response.
“The North West as a whole does really well - figures show we have something like one third of all asylum seekers here. That has a lot to do with the housing market, because it is much more difficult to get affordable housing in the south.
“Local authorities in the north tend to take the biggest numbers in the dispersal scheme. But the Government is trying to do something about that in terms of redressing the balance, although that’s not likely to change in the near future.
“Overall we aren’t doing badly here in Lancashire. We have opened our arms to people fleeing conflict and that is something the county ought to be very proud of.”