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Syrian refugees welcomed to Belfast with words of children

By Cate McCurry

Published 15/12/2015

The Syrian refugee centre in Belfast has been inundated with messages of support
The Syrian refugee centre in Belfast has been inundated with messages of support
The Syrian refugee centre in Belfast has been inundated with messages of support
The Syrian refugee centre in Belfast has been inundated with messages of support
The Syrian refugee centre in Belfast has been inundated with messages of support
The Syrian refugee centre in Belfast has been inundated with messages of support
The Syrian refugee centre in Belfast has been inundated with messages of support

"You're here now and you're safe". This is just one of the hundreds of messages written by local children to the group of Syrian refugees who arrive in Northern Ireland today.

The 51 people - who include a two-week-old baby and 11 children under the age of five - will be taken to an undisclosed welcome centre in Belfast where they will stay for a few nights.

The 10 families will be flying directly from Lebanon after living in a makeshift camp on the Syrian border for a number of years. Some of the children setting up their new life in Northern Ireland have never known life outside the refugee camps.

They will be greeted with colourful welcome cards and posters before meeting a number of representatives from government agencies, the PSNI, health services and their key worker to help with the relocation of the families.

As part of the UK Government's Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, the families will be granted five years' humanitarian protection and will work with Red Cross and Barnardo's officials.

Neil McKittrick, from the Red Cross, explained that, while he didn't know "a lot" about the refugees, he understood they do not have complex needs.

"They have been in camps in Lebanon for a while after leaving the Syrian conflict. Their backgrounds are not something we need to know to be able to help them," he said.

"We are delighted that we are able to support them.

"The whole idea is to enable people to make decisions for themselves and have knowledge of what they are going to do, and this will include a personal integration plan for each person.

"We will then evaluate how the process has gone and how they found the experience.

"Last year we had 15 Syrians accessing Red Cross services locally and some of those will be refugees and others will be those who are working," he added.

After their short stay at the welcome centre, the families will be housed in different parts of Belfast for six months before being moved to permanent accommodation. They will also learn about local culture and customs as they embark on their new life.

This is the first time Northern Ireland has been involved in a refugee resettlement programme.

Denise Wright, who co-ordinates the Northern Ireland Refugee and Asylum Forum, said the response from locals wishing to help has been "overwhelming".

"We are all working together which has been really good and I think it's about making sure everything is in place so that people feel safe and secure and it's a nice, smooth transition into Northern Ireland.

"It's a very basic life in the camps and some have been there for a few years already. We know very little about the families as it's personal data.

"However, the government has asked for people who do not have complex needs and there is strict criteria for people who can and can't qualify to come over.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook with people asking what can they do. The response has been overwhelming."

They also revealed there are around 30 Syrians currently living in Northern Ireland, some of whom have been helping and supporting the relocation process.

Another group of Syrian refugees is expected to come to Northern Ireland at the end of January, however the number within the group is not yet known.

It was also revealed that Northern Ireland receives fewer than 200 applications for asylum each year, from people across the world.

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