Artwork by schoolchildren welcoming Syrian refugees to BelfastYou’ve survived bombs, disease and death threats. So starting a new life in the UK should be easy, right? But where do you start if you don’t speak fluent English, you’ve never been on a bus and you don’t know what a £5 note is?

British Red Cross volunteer Jessica takes you behind-the-scenes to see how Syrian refugee families are introduced to their new lives when they first step off the plane.

The government has pledged to give 20,000 Syrian refugees a safe home in the UK over the next five years. The first families have already arrived.

Jessica Sallabank volunteered to welcome some families to Northern Ireland…

The plane touched down in Belfast at 2.45pm. Syrian families emerged and made their way through the drizzling rain towards a waiting Red Cross team.

A couple and their four daughters held hands; a family determined not to be separated.

The ten families lined up patiently, waiting their turn to be processed at immigration. The atmosphere was subdued – everyone was exhausted.

“We’ve been awake since 5am”, said a young mother, clutching her baby.

“It’s cold,” said one woman, pulling a flimsy coat around her. “But it’s colder in Lebanon,” a man replied.

A baby, just a few weeks old, cried in its mother’s arms. Swaddled in a thick blanket, only its tiny head of thick, black hair was visible.

Teenagers in jeans shuffled along the line, checking their mobile phones and asking about wifi connections.

The younger children hid behind their parents, tired, shy and a little disorientated. But they smiled politely and tried to use some English, saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’.

Posters drawn by school children in Belfast for the Syrian families

School children in Belfast drew welcome posters for the Syrian families

“We’re from Idlib”, and “We’re from Hasseka”, the parents explained through interpreters. Some were Muslim, some were Christian.

Crisps prove a big hit

Once through immigration, the group waited for the buses that would take them to a welcome centre in Belfast.  The families huddled anxiously together, keeping an eye on the weary children.

The Red Cross team handed out drinks and snacks. Tayto crisps, a favourite here in Northern Ireland, were a big hit with the younger children who broke into smiles when they got their packets.

The buses arrived and as they made their way towards Belfast, curious faces peered out the windows. Darkness was falling but the wet, green fields and distinctive outline of the Cave Hill must have looked very different from Syria.

At the welcome centre, Red Cross volunteers were on hand to unload a mountain of bags, the remnants and treasured possessions of previous lives.

The luxury of a bed

The families checked in to their rooms, relieved to see beds and showers. Three years of refugee life had deprived many people of the most basic things.

The volunteers made sure everyone was fed, watered and logged on to the wifi. The families wanted to connect with anxious relatives waiting for news back in Syria.

“What work can I do here?” a number of the men asked, anxious to start earning a living and supporting their family.

“I’m a stonemason,” said one, proudly showing off some examples of his work on his mobile phone.

After a first meal of chicken curry and chips, the families milled about in search of shaving razors, phone chargers and missing bags. Eventually they disappeared, one by one, to their rooms, in search of some private time and a good sleep.

The next few days were filled with paperwork, briefings and guidance on life in the UK.

Syrian refugees study a UK map
The families studied maps to see where they live now. They were taught about currency and how to access English lessons. And they enjoyed their first Irish stew – no doubt the first of many.

Many parents were anxious about their children’s education. The children had not been able to go to school for the last three years. But here in Belfast classroom assistants will help them as they catch up with their peers.

These families had many questions but the Red Cross and other organisations were there to help. As they start their new lives each family will also be matched with a key worker to guide them through the next few months.

And thanks to everyone who supports our work, our refugee services will help them for as long as they need.