A Syrian farmer hopes to re-establish her arable career and love for the land in her new Northern Irish home.
Wejdan Ghazal arrived in Northern Ireland in August 2016 with her daughter, son and grandchildren. She is from Al Zabadani, a village outside Damascus, where she had an arable farm growing a fruit and vegetables.
Now living in Downpatrick, her aim is to lease a few acres of land so she can start farming again.
“My life in Northern Ireland is very nice,” says Wejdan via interpreter Zena Sultan, who is also Syrian. “I used to work in Syria and Lebanon, but here until now I couldn’t, especially as I don’t speak English well, so I feel bored.”
While Wejdan enjoys our beautiful scenery and her grandchildren are happy in their schools, she found it difficult to lease land for farming, being sent in a loop from the job centre to the local council and back again.
She is receiving support from Maximpact, which places refugees and asylum seekers in online English language classes, training, jobs and potential employment.
“The main barrier is the language, and if they don’t master the English language,they have no chance of getting on with the rest of their lives,” says Caroline Kennedy, director of refugee programmes for Maximpact in NI.
“We’re really the first point of call before they even get to colleges. [Language] can really halt these people from moving on with their lives.”
For many immigrants, relocating to a new country, especially where a foreign language is predominant, can be daunting.
Integrating in English-predominant environments and having the language skills to communicate means migrants “can chat with their neighbours, it means they can interact,” says Caroline.
“It means that women can converse with other local women.
“Children adapt to [a new] language very fast and then what happens is,
because the parents haven’t progressed
or they haven’t been able to get into language programmes, the children end up working as an interpreter for the parents whenever they have to go to medical appointments or other meetings.”
Wejdan is grateful for the role the company has played in her life in Northern Ireland, saying: “Maximpact gave us an excellent chance by learning English online and they also hear our problems and try to help us as much as possible.”
The company’s goal is to facilitate the fast track to employment for refugees and migrants to achieve faster social and economic integration.
Maximpact began with its Fast Track to Employment Programme for Syrian refugees in 2018, providing six migrants six weeks of intensive online English tuition. Through word of mouth, other migrants wanted to participate. To date, it has helped more than 300 adults and teens, as well as unaccompanied asylum seekers.
“We found we were being inundated with Syrians who were at a much lower [English language] level, so we kind of remodelled our programme and focused it on pure English at a very basic, pre-beginner level,” explains Caroline.
“We work with pre-beginners and we can work with students wanting to go into university.”
Results are “very positive”, with many being aided in securing employment.
“What we find is, if we go along with them and open the door to the interviews, they get the job,” says Caroline.
“The fact that the lessons were online, they liked it because a lot of them couldn’t get to college or didn’t have enough money for bus fares or they didn’t have childcare. But if they linked in online, it’s very accessible.
“In their DNA is work and trading. They were traders and that’s what they want to do in Northern Ireland.
“They want to set up businesses, they want to move on with their lives.
“They’re very, very grateful that they’ve been given the opportunity to relocate.”
Wejdan is already thinking of what she can grow when her “extreme dream” comes to fruition.
“I like planting very much and I miss my land in Syria, but I think I can plant different types of seeds here,” she explains.
“I tried to plant wheat in my garden and it was very successful.
“I have noticed that you import a lot of vegetables and fruit, but we can do them here instead, so there is no need to import them.”
Wejdan is keen for people here to understand that migrants want to integrate into society.
“We left Syria to live in peace and we got it here in this beautiful country, but we need help with our first steps,” she explains.
“We are foreigners and we are not that good yet in English.”
Caroline’s was impressed by Wejdan’s work ethic, describing her as an “amazing woman”.
She adds: “Her dream is to have a plot of land that she can farm in Northern Ireland and to also employ other Syrians.”
n Visit www.maximpact.com for more information