On 17 June 2017, hundreds of Syrian refugees and members of the local community around Chalk Farm gathered for a Great Get Together to meet new people, to break fast, share food, and to pay tribute to the memory of two people close to the heart of the Syrian community, Mohammed Al Hajali and Jo Cox.
Watch: Syrian Iftar in memory of Mohammed Al Hajali and Jo Cox
Abdulaziz Almashi, co-founder of the Syria Solidarity Campaign, said:
“We were inspired to organise a Great Get Together event to honour Jo Cox, she is so admired by Syrians for her work helping the Syrian cause. I met Jo many times, she was the only MP who cared about Syria and talked about it in the House of Commons. She will always be remembered as a great symbol for the Syrian people.”
“The Great Get Together focuses on what we have in common over what divides us, so this was a great opportunity to commemorate Jo and to shed light on the plight of refugees, a subject which was close to Jo’s heart.”
The Syrian Refugee Community Iftar was originally supposed to raise awareness of the adversity faced by refugees in this country and overseas, as well as an opportunity for every refugee to share a conversation with a British person and share Iftar together.
But just days before the Iftar was due to take place, one of the volunteers, Mohammed Al Hajali, was named as one of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Mohammed was a Syrian refugee who came to the UK in 2014. He was a civil engineering student at West London University. His dream was to be able to go back home one day and rebuild Syria.
During the fire, he was trying to reach his family in Syria but could not get connected due to the situation in Syria. He had not seen his family for four years. When the fire reached his flat on the 14th floor, Mohammed bid his friend and brothers goodbye, saying that the fire had reached him. He asked them to pass on the message to his family in Syria.
Rocked by this tragedy, Syria Solidarity Campaign decided the Iftar should pay tribute to Mohammed and all those who lost their lives in Grenfell.
“We were amazed by the strength of response” recalls Kareen El Beyrouty of Syria Solidarity Campaign.
“We sold tickets for refugees to attend and many people bought tickets for refugees to come who couldn’t afford to otherwise. In the end we were over capacity with more than 350 people, balanced 50% refugees, 50% British.”
“The fundraising page we set up for Mohammed’s family raised £16,000 in the first 24 hours, and the home office issued a visa for his family to come here to bury him. They were able to seek asylum and the money raised gave them the chance to settle somewhere.”
“It felt more important than ever to share this event, to honour those who were lost in Grenfell, remember the values of Jo Cox and emphasis there is more in common between refugees and non-refugees.”
“Among the attendees were a family of Syrian refugees who survived the fire, as they paid tribute to their friend it was inspiring to see they were still here.”
An Imam recited a prayer for the muslims and non-muslims at the breaking of fast, and everyone was served typical Syrian iftar food as they heard talks from people working to help refugees.
Rachel Mantell, the founder of Refugees at Home, spoke about the refugee housing crisis in the UK, how refugees often end up homeless due to lack of support when accepted to the UK in asylum.
Refugees at Home provide temporary housing to help these refugees and Rachel found 3 new hosts as a result of the event who now provide temporary homes for refugees as they get back on their feet.
Among the speakers was a refugee and founder of charity From Syria With Love, recounting his own story and helping people understand the journey, struggle and challenges faced by so many.
“Hearing from refugees helps change perspectives, and bring it home to people in a visceral way” said Abdulaziz
“This kind of events will always build bridges between refugees and locals, they help quash the misconceptions and challenge the narrative that refugees are coming here to take our jobs and homes”.
“The most powerful way to create understanding is experiencing it from a refugee, when you see that person in front of you, it makes it real. Personal interaction and connection is the only way to create understanding, not the articles you read online which dehumanise the situation” said Kareen.
Lots of people at the event came up to say they were blown away and it had a huge impact, emphasising that it should happen more often.
Most of the thank you messages were from Syrians, it was a completely new and unique opportunity for them.
A lot of refugees said they had never attended an event with so many non-Syrians and had never spoke to an English person outside of institutions like the home office. One man said he had been here 8 months and this was his first conversation in a social situation with an English person.
The Syria Solidarity Campaign includes a network of activists and supporters committed to solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, committed to amplifying the voices of Syrians struggling for peace and freedom. http://syriasolidarity.org.uk/