By Omar Karmi for UNHCR
MALVERN, Worcestershire — It started with an errant email that stirred the passions of a handful of amateur activists in a small town in the UK’s West Midlands.
It resulted in a decision by a whole county to take in Syrian refugees under the UK government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS).
The journey there was a windy one: it detoured through the biggest march ever witnessed in the gentile spa town of Malvern (pop: 31,021); included national media coverage; and sparked ill-tempered controversy in local newspaper letters’ pages, social media and on the streets.
For the pressure group that started the ball rolling, however, this longer-than-anticipated struggle to make a difference for some small number of the millions of destitute Syrians is proving a testament to the power of local mobilisation and advocacy.
Malvern Welcomes is now preparing to refocus its efforts to bring at least some of those refugees to their picturesque, affluent and overwhelmingly white town in the western hills of Worcestershire.
It’s a long way from the single wayward email in September 2014 that ended up in the inbox of Amnesty volunteer and retired music teacher Ruth Forecast, now on the steering committee of Malvern Welcomes.
The email urged Amnesty offices in five cities across the UK to work with local councils to take in Syrian refugees under the VPR scheme. And it provoked Ruth to take action.
“I thought, why does it always have to be cities? Why would you not do that in a town like Malvern?”
She found a ready audience in Malvern’s then mayor, Julian Roskams. Roskams, a Green Party councillor, seized upon the suggestion, even though he had, by his own admission, not given the issue much thought before then.
“This is an affluent area. It’s comfortable, quiet and a nice place to be,” Roskams said in an interview at his house in April. “We thought: if we can’t do something, who can?”
But opposition dogged them from the start. Malvern Welcomes is bucking a countrywide trend that suggests British attitudes toward taking in refugees are hardening. A February BBC poll found that 41 per cent of respondents said the UK should take fewer refugees, up ten per cent from a similar poll taken in September 2015. In the West Midlands, that figure was at 51 per cent.
“I don’t think [Malvern Welcomes] have thought through what they are doing,” said Claire, 34, a retailer in the centre of Malvern. She suggested Syrians held different worldviews to locals and worried about a “clash of values”.
She conceded that the UK could help refugees. But: “we can’t help everybody. Local issues should take priority”.
Such concerns resonated with the local council. When Malvern Welcomes (then calling themselves Malvern Welcomes Syrian Refugees) first approached the Conservative-controlled local council in December 2014 with a motion to apply to the VPR scheme, they were first sent away with a “we’ll look into it”. Then, after general elections in May 2015, the motion was rejected.
Activists took that as a call to battle, though Conservative councillor Melanie Baker said the decision had been mostly procedural.
“The key thing that was of concern to [the council] was how this was going to affect people locally who are waiting for social housing … what we needed was a better answer from government on funding so no one would lose out.”
A similar response was elicited at the county level, where a report commissioned was, according to Roskams “very, very negative”. They had, said Jane Knowles, a volunteer with Malvern Welcomes, a shop owner and head of a local business association, “hit a wall”.
But they didn’t give up.
The group began collecting signatures on the street. They met a lot of support, said Vivienne Jones, 73, a great grandmother who volunteered for the task. But there was also deep opposition.
“I was surprised at the anger that was there,” said Jones. “Some people just walked by and shouted abuse.”
Jones said she couldn’t remember any similar reaction in the 1980s when she was involved in an effort to help Vietnamese refugees settle in the town.
In fact, Malvern has a history of hosting those displaced by conflict and no record of any great opposition to immigration in the past, according to Faith Rengler, curator at the town’s Museum of Local History.
In 1914, residents responded with enthusiasm to a national appeal, welcoming some 500 Belgian refugees displaced by the fighting in their country, said Rengler.
In World War II, the town became a focal point for war efforts, hosting Free French cadets, the exiled Belgian military staff as well as over 3,000 Americans, mostly wounded soldiers who were cared for in five purpose-built hospitals in the area.
The town also took in Asians from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972 and the 26 Vietnamese refugees fleeing war there in the 1970s with whom Jones was involved.
With that history in mind and 1,200 signatures collected, Malvern Welcomes felt confident enough in July to organise a public march and deliver a public petition to the council. Two hundred people joined the march, which became the largest demonstration in living memory in Malvern and was featured on Channel 4News.
It also sparked weeks of controversy in the letters’ pages of the local Malvern Gazette. Activists were ridiculed as, among other things, “left-wing, middle class do-gooders” and accused of ignoring local needs. (Far unkinder things were said on social media).
Attitudes would change in early September 2015.
“You could almost feel a seismic shift,” said Roskams, after the image of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey, appeared on front pages everywhere. “Our facebook page was suddenly inundated.”
Then, on September 7, the government announced it would broaden the VPR scheme to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees until 2020.
A second motion on refugees before Worcester County Council later that month passed without dissent. And in January, Worcestershire applied to receive 50 Syrian refugees under the VPR Scheme by the end of 2016, with a view to take more over the next four years.
But while this marked a victory for Malvern Welcomes, Ruth is keen that the group achieve its original aim: that refugees not just be welcomed to the county, but to Malvern itself, its fresh air and stunning views.
Malvern Welcomes has mobilised volunteers qualified to give language lessons. It is actively looking to secure affordable housing. There have been meetings to discuss particular needs of vulnerable refugees. And steering committee members have shared their experience with other local pressure groups around the country.
Ruth Forecast has been a driving force behind the group, which changed its name to signal that it is not just about Syrians but all refugees. Immigration, xenophobia and refugee rights have been themes, she said, she has returned to again and again in her life and “not just, I hope” because of her Jewish background.
“I think a lot of people who oppose this or don’t want to help just don’t realise that this could be them. It could be any of us.”
Activists are confident that the actual presence of refugees will allay any local concerns as people are confronted with the realities of individual stories. It might prevent discussions from shifting from where the focus ought to be, said Knowles.
“I would be moving heaven and earth to get my child to a place of safety. And not just a place of safety: if you’ve got no choices, if there was no education, if there was no future for them… You fight for your children, wherever you are.”
Councillor Baker has also become a firm advocate. Even with the small numbers involved, she said, it is a “big deal”.
“One refugee helped is a big deal. We can’t take a million, but we can take one, two, 200. Just that small bit is helpful.”
In Dolly’s Sweet Shop in the heart of Malvern, proprietor Hani Hamdi, 39, was optimistic.
Hamdi, an Egyptian who came to the UK 12 years ago, said it was imperative that safe havens were offered refugees. He had no doubt that Malvern, his home of five years, would prove welcoming.
“There will be no problem,” he said, adding with a smile: “This is a very nice and friendly place.”
This article was first published by UNHCR and appears here with their permission.