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I came here to escape Pinochet – now I welcome Syrian refugees

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Camila Iturra - Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign. Picture: Keith Heppell
Camila Iturra - Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign. Picture: Keith Heppell

It has been about a year since Cambridge City Council set its aim to find a home for 50 of the most vulnerable from war-torn Syria.

Homes, not suitable for those on the council’s affordable housing waiting list, have been found for seven families, and thanks to local residents group Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign (CRRC) a few more have also been secured by private landlords in the city.

The council has now pledged to increase the number of refugees coming to the city from Syria to 100. As with the first 50, it will be a slow process.

Camila Iturra, an environmental fundraiser who works in the city, has been volunteering with the CRRC since it was formed just over a year ago. She is all too familiar with the experience of starting a new life in a different country that refugee families from Syria are experiencing now.

The Chilean military coup, led by Augusto Pinochet began in 1973. Camila, then an infant, and her family fled the country and arrived in the UK in April 1974.

She said: “I came here with my family in similar circumstances and we benefitted enormously from the local community in Cambridge who helped us then. I can’t think of anyone from our community who hasn’t gone on to have a really happy life here.”

“I think what worked for us was no one denying where we came from. No one needed to celebrate it either, we didn’t need any special treatment.

“I think for my generation growing up here we felt very English, very similar to our school friends, but there was an element about us that made us different.

“I think it’s good to celebrate that difference so you don’t feel weighed down by it in any way. I was very lucky in my school that people were really nice and really interested about Chile, and the fact that I spoke Spanish and had avocado pear on toast for breakfast - all these oddities. That was a really good thing. I know some Chilean kids who grew up at a different school didn’t have that and they suffered a bit because of it.

“I think today the Cambridge community needs to welcome these families as part of the community but also celebrate and be interested in what Syria is about. It has a beautiful history and wonderful culture and everyone I’ve met that has come from there is friendly and warm. There’s so much to like and learn about where they’ve come from.

“About a year ago I found on social media that there were lots of people who wanted to take action to help refugees. We were seeing in the media people coming from Syria and other parts of the world into Europe through the Mediterranean and how awful that was.

“We started coming together through social media, complete strangers all saying we wanted to volunteer our time.”

CRRC has been assisting the council in the mammoth task of helping families from Syria make a new home in Cambridge.

Camila explained: “The council have been brilliant since we started this - really receptive to our campaign. For the council I think there was a genuine desire to help but with the reality of things I think they also knew their resources were really constrained.

“What we said is that we would talk within our community to find assistance. There were people saying: I have a spare room, I can teach English, I can babysit, here are some clothes - there were so many people coming forward with help. As far as accommodation went, central government has stated that no one can go into anyone’s private home, it has to be a whole empty house that is offered. So literally hundreds of people who had offered rooms or to share their homes were all rejected. That’s been the main stumbling block, there just aren’t any spare houses.

“A lot of our campaigning is trying to find private landlords who are able to provide a whole house - finding those private owners and trying to convince them that there is a worthy cause, that helping a desperate family in need is a thing to do with an empty house.

“It’s great that the Campaign has been able to work with the council to offer the further 50 places but it’s not as easy as that. It’s going to take all of us to continue being a community that supports refugees and finding the things to help fill those homes, because the council can’t be seen to provide the things to these families that is beyond essential - they’ll get one plate, one cup, a knife and fork but nothing beyond that.”

CRRC have been helping source items for the home like cooking utensils and other appliances that make life easier. Clothes are also in demand - a list of needed clothes and toys is on the CRRC website.

Help is also needed with callouts - helping a family with a certain task such as driving a family somewhere if needed. There is also need for Arabic translators, and other support is needed, such as helping kids to join clubs when they show an interest.

Camila said: “One of the boys is an excellent football player and we’ve helped him join a team and raised the funds to help him. One of the girls wanted to do gymnastics. Some of the families don’t have the resources to do that yet - they will do eventually as they improve their English and find work.

“And another important thing is apprenticeships and work opportunities and training. All the parents of these families want to start working as soon as they can so that would be a really helpful.”

To find out more visit www.cambridgerefugees.org/

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