Just Miles From Trump’s Scottish Golf Course Lies an Oasis for Refugees
(Bloomberg) -- Like most public buildings in Scotland, the signs at the town hall in Inverurie are in both English and Gaelic. Yet in a packed room on one typically blustery autumn afternoon, all you could hear was Arabic.
About two dozen people had gathered for a presentation in their native language on how to start a business. Most were Syrians, who then asked questions about taxes and regulations. A few said they wanted to open a restaurant, while another was interested in a hair salon.
“Far more people came than I expected,” said Ahmed Sabir, an Arabic-speaking adviser at Business Gateway, a government-backed agency that helps startups. “I don’t think this will be my last one.”
The scene on the edge of the Scottish Highlands is more than just a reflection of the reaches of multiculturalism. Scotland has taken in more refugees per capita from Syria than anywhere else in the U.K. under a new program set up four years ago. And in the febrile climate of Brexit, its efforts have a political as well as humanitarian dimension.
The Scottish government has won kudos from the United Nations for integrating refugees, and the open-door approach to immigration has been a timely boost to its narrative that the country has diverged from its larger English neighbor.
Scotland voted against leaving the European Union and, five years after the last one, the pro-independence administration is pushing for another referendum on splitting from the rest of the U.K. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said this month that Brexit has made the case for a vote undeniable and she will demand the British government allows her to hold one.
“Scotland is different, it’s a mantra,” said Alison Phipps, a professor of languages and intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow. “If you want to create a flourishing and inclusive society, how you include marginalized groups is your critical point.”
The policy toward what the government calls “New Scots” comes from Scotland’s refugee integration strategy, which Phipps worked on as chair of the group overseeing it. It sets out a vision for “a welcoming country where refugees and asylum seekers are able to rebuild their lives from the day they arrive.”
The country took in 2,937 refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme as of June, about two-thirds more than the largest number received in an English region. Some made their to Inverurie, just 15 miles from U.S. President Donald Trump’s golf course on the North Sea coast. And in this remote region they found themselves unexpectedly at home.
In some ways, the welcome they received is surprising. Politically, the pro-independence Scottish National Party lost ground in the 2017 election to the Conservatives and the neighboring area voted for Brexit more than anywhere else in Scotland in the referendum a year before. The oil industry that artificially inflated the economy is well past its peak.
The main source of diversity is the region’s history of eastern European migrants who came to work in the fishing and farming industries, said Katie MacLean, head of resettlement for Aberdeenshire. “We had no experience of refugees in the northeast of Scotland, so when we started to talk about them it was a big gamble,” she said.
On an evening this month in a community hall in a village about 8 miles (13 kilometers) outside Inverurie, local and Syrian women were assembling reusable menstruation kits bound for rural Tanzania. Some were meeting for the first time, others were already friends. They chatted as they drank tea and ate halal sandwiches and homemade oatcakes.
“You’re helping and we’re helping too,” Ayoush, a Syrian volunteer, said when one of the organizers asked participants why they decided to come.
Nearly four years ago, she was living in Aleppo. The civil war that started in 2011 forced her to flee, and it still shows no sign of ending. A Turkish offensive this month following the decision by the U.S. to abandon its Kurdish allies moved the conflict into a new and unpredictable phase.
Ayoush ended up in Inverurie, a town of 16,000 people about 100 miles from Edinburgh, after claiming asylum in Lebanon with her family and being transferred by the UN to the U.K. They were among the first Syrians to arrive in the town.
There will be 58 families in the area by Christmas, with many of those already present volunteering with community projects and with annual events like the music festival and the switching on of the Christmas tree lights. They’ve also set up a soccer club.
Inverurie West Parish Church in the town center has given the “New Scots” use of a room in the hall for Friday prayers and a venue for meetings. “They’ve always expressed a feeling of welcome,” said Reverend Rhona Cathcart. “That’s not to say they might not have had some difficult experiences.”
The country hasn’t really been touched by the backlash against absorbing people from war-torn nations—especially Muslims—that cost German Chancellor Angela Merkel support, allowed leaders in Hungary and Poland to cement their rule and fueled votes for nationalist parties from Sweden to Italy.
It also doesn’t have some of the pressures that many pro-Brexit politicians have nurtured elsewhere in the U.K. when it comes to immigration. England is one of Europe’s most densely populated countries while Scotland’s 5.4 million people make up about 8% of the U.K. The migrant population in England is 12-14% and in Scotland it’s 4%.
Scotland needs people to sustain industries such as tourism, fishing and agriculture, especially in more sparse regions in the north. “Migrants are good for us, good for the economy, and we all win,” said Angus MacNeil, the SNP’s member of the U.K. Parliament for a region of islands off the west coast that just got their first mosque.
The push now in Aberdeenshire is to get more Syrians into work or to set up their own businesses. English is the biggest obstacle to employment followed by the recognition of qualifications from Syria. The purpose of the seminar in Arabic in Inverurie was to help demystify some of the barriers. Many of the men and women who sat on folding chairs with faded red cushions in the town hall dream of starting up their own.
That could change the High Street, which so far shows few tangible signs of the “New Scots.” There’s certainly no Middle Eastern restaurant, no halal butcher.
To stave off potential tension around services like housing, Aberdeenshire Council put the Syrians up in private accommodation, and created a WhatsApp group so they were all in constant contact. The resettlement team helped organize outings for them to learn more about Scotland to places like Bennachie, a range of hills outside Inverurie, and are trialing a program that would see them hosted by faith groups in other parts of the country for a holiday.
“The scale we have at the moment works, we resettle 15 families a year and we’re constantly testing the waters to ensure services are available,” said MacLean. “Saturation is subjective.”
Indeed, Syrian refugees are happier and more settled in Scotland than those in England, according to a study by the University of Glasgow for the U.K. government’s Global Challenges Research Fund. The survey found 81% of those in Scotland saying they intend to remain in the country, compared with 65% of those in England.
Walking along the River Don that divides Inverurie, one Syrian who asked not to be named said even if he moves away to study or work, he’ll come back to raise children.
Sure it’s cold, but it’s peaceful, the man said. Like other Syrians, locals call him a “New Scot,” not a refugee. And that’s how he refers to himself now.
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