Refugee crisis: Scottish island of Bute prepares to welcome 15 Syrian families

Some locals preparing to greet the newcomers harbour doubts that the island will provide enduring appeal

The large sign among the rain-soaked palm trees in the garden of the Rothesay guest house is intended to attract new customers. But for the 15 Syrian families who will soon call the west of Scotland their home, the words “Welcome to Palmyra” outside the guesthouse on the Isle of Bute will be a disquieting reminder of the violence they left behind.

Earlier this year the ruins of the ancient Syrian city became a blood-soaked arena when Isis used Palymra’s amphitheatre to stage public executions.

For the families coming to Bute, the “Palmyra” sign will soon become familiar as they walk or take the short bus ride into Rothesay or take their children to school.

But while they have escaped the civil war in Syria, some locals preparing to welcome them harbour doubts that Bute will provide enduring appeal to the newcomers.

“I can’t see them wanting to stay longer than three months,” said one. Others warned that life for the refugees will not be easy in an area that has faded since its days as the quintessential Clyde holiday resort, “the Madeira of Scotland”.

Bute: Castles and conveniences

The island of Bute has a population of 6,498, according to the 2011 census. Rothesay is its principal town, with attractions include Rothesay Castle, dating back to the 13th century. According to the TripAdvisor website, the town’s second most popular site is the Victorian toilets. One reviewer wrote: “Interesting to see how public toilets used to be.”

Rothesay’s population used to triple in the summer months as Glasgow’s working-class holidaymakers piled on to paddle steamers and ferries to go “doon the watter”. Today, the population has shrunk to 6,000, mostly pensioners. Many young people leave to be educated on the mainland. Few return. Jobs on the island are scarce. Rothesay is among the poorest places in Scotland. 

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One of the buildings the refugees will be housed in

“Look, there’s no jobs, and language will be a big, big problem,” said Reza Haghparast, one of the few people of Middle Eastern descent who is already on Bute. Speaking to The Independent, he said a lot had to happen to keep the families on the island long term. Although he was born in Scotland when his Iranian father was teaching at Glasgow University, his family returned to Iran when he was young. He came back when was 17 and now owns kebab and food shops in Rothesay, Paisley and Cambuslang. 

“The weather is terrible, cold. And that’ll be hard, really hard. You get used to it. But look at where they’ve come from. The only thing on their mind will be safety. The weather will be irrelevant to begin with. But when that eases, when they start thinking of the future? Well, there’s not much future here if there’s no jobs, no group they can identify with. No mosque. I’m an atheist now, but I know how important that will be.”

Another of the locals added: “Take a family from here to the middle of the Syrian desert in the heat of the summer. They won’t speak Arabic. So, it’s the same, not easy.” 

The Argyll Community Housing Association (ACHA) and Fyne Homes are the two organisations providing flats for 15 families and their children. Three families are being housed in a 1960s apartment block a mile from Rothesay in Ardbeg run by ACHA. Others will be housed near Rothesay’s castle in a street of flats run by Fyne. Neither boasts picturesque views of the sea.

Both blocks are still associated with “problem” tenants, those with alcohol, drug or social problems, and although the former council flats have been substantially upgraded, and are now regarded as safe and well-maintained, residents said there were still a few individuals who “needed to be avoided”.

The Ardbeg block is two-thirds empty. Standing in a village of detached sandstone properties with well-maintained gardens and tidy gates, the white rough-cast block jars with its surroundings, more Glasgow housing estate than Clyde seaside. 

The weather is terrible, cold. And that’ll be hard, really hard. You get used to it. But look at where they’ve come from. The only thing on their mind will be safety.

Reza Haghparast, one of the few people of Middle Eastern descent already on Bute

Locals said the bedroom tax, which affects those in work, was a contributing factor to the emptiness. One, while waiting for the bus into Rothesay, said: “If it’s empty then it should be used. Though it’s a shame that they’re [the refugees] being put here. But it won’t be easy for them here.”

The Scottish Government has agreed to take over 40 per cent of the 1,000 or so Syrians that David Cameron says will be brought to the UK from refugee camps before the end of this year. Holyrood set up a taskforce, headed by its international development minister, Humza Yousaf. Its aim is the delivery of an integrated response, involving grassroots organisations and local communities, and a welcome by those who will be neighbours of the incoming families. 

Mr Yousaf called the decision by Holyrood to take the refugees “a proud day for Scotland”. Argyll and Bute council have also been involved. Locals are keen to help the refugees, though they are uncertain quite what is needed. One resident in Ardbeg said: “We have officially been told nothing. We’ve been sent nothing, offered no advice.”

Another, in Fyne’s Rothesay property, said: “Some of us were expecting a meeting of some sort, maybe to be told what we could do, how we could help. Maybe who the families were, where they had come from. But there’s been silence. It’s no right really.”

At the Bute Oasis, which helps run a food bank on the island, volunteers said there was a strong sense of goodwill towards the refugees. “People have been handing in anything they think the families might need. But officially we’ve been told very little.”

The information that has been given to the community on what to expect and how they can help, has been limited. Why? There are fears that too much information will only aid those intending to target a vulnerable group of people. One person involved in the refugee planning said : “There is policy to keep the circle of those with information as small as possible. That way the scope for any action against this vulnerable group of people is limited.”

Both the Scottish Government and Argyll and Bute Council were asked by The Independent what information had been given to the local community. 

Last night a Scottish Government said: “For privacy reasons local authorities will not be providing any details of the specific arrangements for the refugees.” No reply was received from the council.

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