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New Scots: meet the Syrian refugees who are setting up businesses in a small Scottish town

Muhanad Alwen - photo credit: Anna Moffat

New Scots: meet the Syrian refugees who are setting up businesses in a small Scottish town

Everything stops for cake.

It’s a dreich day in Alloa town centre, but Muhanad Alwen’s café is an oasis of light and colour. We have just sat down to discuss his journey here from Damascus when the cake arrives, and what a cake it is – an airy tower of sponge layers, sandwiched together with Chantilly cream and drizzled with sticky caramel sauce. There are enthusiastic murmurs of appreciation around the table as it is rapidly demolished. The conversation can wait.

There is a distinctly French flavour to Muhanad’s delicacies, which is no accident. “Syria was influenced by the French because it was a French colony – not just baking or sweets, but our cuisine generally,” explains Muhanad through translator Rohdwan. The glass-fronted display cabinet could be straight out of a Parisian patisserie, with its carefully constructed slabs of chocolate cake, lemon and strawberry sponges, petits fours, date-filled pastries (ma’amoul) and plates of the freshest, crispiest baklava this side of Damascus.

Producing food like this is not so much cake-making as artistry, but to Muhanad, it’s all in a day’s work. The 37-year-old is an artisan who has been honing his craft for more than 20 years, having started out as a chef at the Damascus Sheraton before setting up a small cake factory and bake shop of his own. After he arrived in Scotland as a refugee in 2017, he naturally wished to pick up his old business again.

This is life. It doesn’t stop at any stage. You forget the past, move forward, focus on the future.

Alwen Cakes opened last April and Muhanad has spread the word by attending farmers’ markets and putting up a stall in Stirling shopping centre. Thanks to orders via the café’s Facebook page, he now has a client base that stretches from Edinburgh to Glasgow via Stirling, Falkirk and Dollar, as well as Alloa itself.

It represents normality at last – the normality that he and his family lost amid the conflict in Syria.

The Damascus suburb where they lived was taken by rebels and became a target for the Syrian regime. First their block was hit in an airstrike, forcing everyone to move, and then Muhanad was arrested as part of a wave of random arrests. He spent a month packed into a room with hundreds of other detainees. On being released without charge, he headed for Lebanon with his wife and children.

They lived there for five years and when the opportunity arose to start a new life in Scotland through the UN resettlement scheme, Muhanad took it. Even so, it was a huge change for the whole family, coming to Alloa. “I felt lost at first because of the language barrier,” he says. “It felt the same for my family.” But he insists that feeling only lasted a week and that from day one, he was supported by senior housing officer Lynette Murray, her council colleagues and volunteers from Shelter, to find his way around, start English classes and get to know how things work in Scotland.

Once he had sufficient English, Murray helped him fulfil his ambition of setting up his own business. “Especially thanks to Lynette,” says Muhanad, “she has helped me with everything, from small things to big things, getting information about family, kids, school and housing.”

So how does he feel about being here now? Muhanad looks serious. “I’m really happy here,” he says. “Very safe. Very safe.”

Safety. Security. Peace of mind. Those are the themes that recur.

Across the road from Alwen Cakes is Alloa Barber Shop, which is run by another Alwen, Muhanad’s younger brother, Mohamad, along with his friend, Neehad Mohammad. Neehad, who is Kurdish, came to Scotland with his disabled sister after initially fleeing to Kurdistan in Iraq.

As we chat, a boy comes in with his mother and is given a warm welcome by Neehad and Mohamad before climbing into the chair for his haircut. “There is everything here in Alloa, for my children,” says Mohamad, 33, who has two boys aged five and three-and-a-half. “It’s not safe for my children in Syria, or Lebanon. Better here for school, doctors, everything for my sons.”

Mohamad was also arrested at random in Damascus and was held in prison for six months. He was finally released without charge at 10pm one evening. “In the morning, we just picked everything up and went,” he says. The family arrived in Lebanon soon afterwards and Mohamad, a professional barber, started up a business, but his tribulations were not over. There was a problem in the shop one day and, in a country where “everyone carries weapons”, it resulted in Mohamad being shot in the leg.

Everyone wants to make a dignified income and to be able to independently sustain themselves

Following that incident, he approached the UNHCR to request resettlement.

The family arrived in Scotland at the same time as Muhanad, in mid-2017, and he has received tailored support in a whole variety of ways, which he has found “very helpful”.

Mohamad worked at a Turkish barber’s for a while to improve his English, before setting up his own place. His business model is very customer-focused, with masks, massages, waxing and threading on offer alongside haircuts.

“We had a lot of support from Lynette, she encouraged us all the time, and we managed to follow her advice,” says Mohamad. “We are happy, our business is going well, people are coming and even bringing their friends.

“This is life. It doesn’t stop at any stage. You forget the past, move forward, focus on the future.” He laughs: “There’s no break.”

This tiny central Scotland town (population 21,000) is now home to three businesses run by Syrian residents, all within a few metres of each other, the other being a restaurant. A Middle Eastern grocer’s shop is also in the pipeline.

Such a flowering of Syrian-run enterprises reflects both the innovation of the newcomers and the enthusiasm with which the council and community of Clackmannanshire have embraced refugees brought to the UK via the UN’s resettlement scheme. The council has housed and supported 24 families so far – more per head of population, it is thought, than any other council in Scotland. It’s quite a claim to fame for the smallest mainland local authority in the country and is giving Alloa town centre a noticeable boost.

The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) was launched in 2014 to help those affected by the civil war in Syria, with the aim of resettling those in the greatest need, including people needing urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture, and women and children at risk.

Theresa May committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK while Nicola Sturgeon said that Scotland would take a minimum of 10 per cent of the UK total.

It has been up to local authorities and their partners to turn those commitments into reality, and they have embraced the challenge. All 32 councils in Scotland have taken an active part in the scheme and over 3,000 refugees have been resettled in Scotland under the VPRS and the associated Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme (VCRS) – more than 50 per cent over the original commitment. Glasgow, unsurprisingly as the largest local authority in Scotland, has taken the highest number. The resettlement scheme will continue after 2020, with a further 5,000 refugees due to be settled UK-wide during the first year. Scottish councils have registered their desire to continue taking part, including Clackmannanshire Council which voted in November to take another 20 families over the next five years.

In Alloa, petite, unassuming housing officer Lynette Murray has been the lynchpin figure, answering the families’ questions, encouraging them and helping them with the bureaucracy involved in starting up a new business.

“People bring a huge range of skills and experiences with them when they seek refugee protection here

“When Muhanad was ready, he came to us with his business idea and we have supported him to look for premises, to meet with environmental health and meet the requirements for planning,” explains Murray. He was assisted in drawing up a business plan by People Plus, through the New Enterprise Allowance scheme at the Job Centre. “We made sure he had his certificate for food hygiene, supported him applying for the loans, and the rest he pretty much did on his own.”

Scotland’s history of settling asylum seekers and refugees, while largely positive, has not been uniformly so. Receiving a warm welcome can make a world of difference to newcomers. So how has the local community responded in Alloa?

“Really positively,” she says. “There’s been lots of positive feedback through Facebook pages, lots of positive feedback through newspaper articles; we’ve not had anything negative towards the families at all. Clacks, the residents and the community, have really welcomed them with open arms, they’ve been really good.”

The far-right Scottish Defence League (SDL) did attempt to foment discontent in Alloa three years ago, with a march against the council for taking refugee families, but Murray notes, with quiet satisfaction, that four times the number of local people turned out to support the families as there were SDL marchers. Not a peep has been heard from the SDL since.

The Scottish Government’s recently published plans for a Scottish visa highlights Scotland’s need for migration, to help maintain the tax base to fund public services as the population ages.

But the contribution of refugees to the economy is sometimes overlooked, with the focus being on migrant workers. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. The proactive approach of Clackmannanshire Council shows what can be achieved when the right coordinated package of support is put in place for refugee families.

“People bring a huge range of skills and experiences with them when they seek refugee protection here and it’s great to see this being used to enrich neighbourhoods and communities across Scotland,” says Sabir Zazai, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council.

“Everyone wants to make a dignified income and to be able to independently sustain themselves and their families. But the support needs to be in place for this. The host society must invest as early as possible in people’s potential, whether that’s through education, training or resources to start new businesses. We know that the earlier this is in place, the swifter progress people can make on the journey from stranger to citizen.

“We have strong political leadership around migration issues in Scotland and there is a lot of goodwill from local people towards newcomers. We need to harness both of these if we are to provide the support people seeking refugee protection are entitled to, and to think independently about the future prosperity of the country.”

Qahraman Ramadan, 35, also lives in Alloa, with his wife and three children. The children love school and are developing Scottish accents, he tells me with a smile. He intends to open a Middle Eastern grocery shop in Alloa, a prospect that excites him since he doesn’t enjoy being unemployed. He is keen to acknowledge the help he has received from the council since arriving, joking that “I feel that the council is like my dad or my mum”.

In the future, if he succeeds, he says, why not expand his business and recruit people? “That’s my plan, to give back to the people who have helped us. Why not provide employment to the locals?”

It’s an encouraging idea and at a time when Scotland needs migrants for their energy, skills and innovation, it’s a reminder that refugees are very much part of that story.

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