Thursday, 12 October 2017

Welcoming Syrian families to start new lives in North Powys

Megan Bowler (second from the left) is a Family Support Worker at Ethnic Youth Support Team and has played a key role in resettling refugee Syrian families in Newtown, North Powys with her colleague Hamed Hassoun.

Ethnic Youth Support Team was set up in 2005 by a group of ethnic minority young people in Swansea. It aimed to fill a gap in provision for young Black & Minority Ethnic people aged 11-25 by providing a “targeted, culturally sensitive and holistic support service to meet their needs.” It now has a team of 15 staff across Wales, mainly in the South.

I caught up with Megan at The Siawns Teg Hub in Newtown to find out more.

How did your involvement start?

A few years ago I was browsing the Powys County Council Facebook page and first found out that there was a plan to resettle Syrian refugees in the county. I followed it out of interest, and then soon later two jobs popped up on the Jobcentre Plus site. These were with EYST – the organisation had just moved into Mid Wales and received funding to supply Support Workers for Newtown. I applied for and got one of the jobs – which is completely different to what I had been doing. During my training in Swansea I met a fantastic team who do some fabulous work in South Wales.

Hamed joined me after starting initially as an Arabic translator. He has lived in Powys for 40 years but came from Palestine originally.

Megan and Hamed
Where did your interest in the project stem from?

I am myself of mixed race. My Dad is chairman of the Refugee Service in NE England, so I have a long-standing interest in resettlement. My Dad’s Mum was from India – she married an Englishman from London who was in the Royal Air Force. Unfortunately she experienced a lot of racial abuse in the 1950s. It was a tough time, and Nana experienced mental health issues as a result.

Tell us more about your role with EYST

The first two families travelled to Newtown in December 2016, and then four more over the early months of 2017. It is nice that their arrival was spread out as the initial resettlement time can be busy and difficult. Our first job is to meet the families at the airport when they touch down.

Our role then is to help them settle by working closely with Powys County Council who find the families homes. We assist them to stock up on food, to register with the GP and a dentist, and to contact the Benefits’ Office. The hardest thing for them to deal with is finding foodstuffs that are right for them as so few are sold in this area.

Luckily there is a small prayer room above one of the restaurants in Newtown that the men can use for prayers on a Friday. An Iman travels from Telford every week and also meets special requests for food which the families have!

Do the families require support around their emotional wellbeing?

Once they have arrived we let them rest and chill. They need to settle their feet as they are so tired when they first get here. We visit regularly in the first two weeks to make sure that they are OK. We don’t want them to feel lost.

It was harder with the first families as it was the first time for us. Subsequent families have benefitted from the first families’ own support system which is now in place.

The families may want to talk about their background or they may not. It is up to them. It has certainly been a long waiting game for them. They sometimes talk about feeling sad. We will listen and then after a short cry they will get over it.

If there is found to be a need we would seek further support. We are still in the honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting. Maybe in a year down the line things may change, but no one is requesting extra support yet. There is a sense they want to get on with their lives as they have been through the worst really.

How do families cope with language barriers?

English for Speakers of other languages (ESOL) courses have been set up for the families at St David’s House in Newtown. They attend three sessions a week. There are some really good speakers in the first couple of families now. The original six children are in primary and secondary school and are doing fantastically – they have settled in so well.

At Newtown Food Fair, September 2017

What support have the families received from the community?

People in Newtown have been really helpful and welcoming. They have offered friendship, they greet the family members on the street, and invite them in for tea. Shopkeepers have also assisted – offering help if people are confused or lost. There has not been a lot of tension, and certainly nothing confrontational.

I experienced a lot of racism when I was little so I am very wary of it. But it is totally different here. People are very open about the situation and willing to confront it more.

What is your ongoing role now the families are becoming settled?

They pop in and see me once a week. We have a lot of volunteers on a Friday here who run an English conversation session. It is also useful for me to provide a link between the school and the parents. And if anything ever goes wrong they can come back to us and we will help fix things. They know we’re here if they need us.

What’s the next step for the families?

The next level is to help support people into work. It is about giving them the confidence to make phone calls and go to appointments.

Are you working in partnership with other organisations?

Yes, several. These include PCC, schools and colleges, St David’s House for the ESOL courses, the charity Siawns Teg (this place is like a community centre for the families), and the police – who have made sure that the neighbourhoods are safe and also make themselves known to the families – there was an initial fear of the uniforms.

Sarah Leyland-Morgan at Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations is the Third Sector Strategic Lead on the relocation of Syrian families into Powys. She has engaged with the local communities to provide active support to EYST and the families.

Henrietta Davies-Dunn at SOVA – increasing BME employment – in Machynlleth helps the families to get back into work by providing sessions on English language, writing CVs and finding voluntary work.

What are the challenges of your role?

Sometimes things don’t happen as quickly as the families would like and there is a level of frustration. As the link between the families and services we can feel a bit like middle men and get the blame for things.

Emotionally it can be difficult to hear the stories – I go home and think how would I cope with that? We have to be tough.

Tell us about some of the most rewarding work you have done so far with EYST?

The best thing is seeing the kids really progressing through the schools – seeing how well they’ve done and how hard they work to learn English.

The families did some cooking in a kitchen tent at the Food Fair in September. They were so full of enthusiasm because they wanted to give something back to the community. One of the women explained, in English, all about each dish. That really warmed my heart. It’s just so nice seeing them succeed and making their own friends. That’s very rewarding.

When you are not working for EYST, how do you enjoy spending your time?

I’m a mum. I have a 10 year old and a 3 year old. I’m also a jeweller and I make jewellery to sell. I enjoy doing art and jewellery workshops with kids. I’m definitely a maker!

Many thanks to Megan for telling us all about her work supporting resettlement of Syrian families in Newtown. If you want to find out more about the EYST project you can contact Megan by emailing

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