Northern Ireland

Syrian refugees: 'Overwhelming gratitude' as first families arrive in Belfast

A flight carrying the 51 refugees landed at Belfast International Airport on Tuesday Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The first Syrian refugees to be resettled in Northern Ireland arrived on a flight from Lebanon on Tuesday

There was an "overwhelming" sense of gratitude from the first group of Syrian refugees as they arrived in Northern Ireland, a charity has said.

Fifty-one people were flown to Belfast on Tuesday and they are being helped to resettle in the city under the UK's Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

Red Cross refugee services manager Neil McKittrick was first to greet them.

He said it was an "emotional day" and added that it seemed as if "a weight had been lifted off their shoulders".

The group, consisting of 10 families, was taken to a dedicated welcome centre in Belfast where they were given food and temporary accommodation while their initial needs are assessed.

'Integration plans'

Most of them do not speak English and Mr McKittrick said some of the group did not know where they had been taken to, even after their flight landed at Belfast International Airport.

"The information they seem to have received seemed to have been a bit patchy," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"We did have one gentleman who thought he was in London, and it was only when we were coming down the M2 and he saw Cave Hill, I think he began to think this might not be London," Mr McKittrick added.

"He seemed happy enough, some of the kids were recording it on their phones as they were coming down the motorway.

"A couple of other families knew they were coming to the UK, but they weren't exactly sure where they were coming to."

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The families are spending their first few days in Belfast at a special welcome centre, where charity workers have helped to prepare temporary accommodation

The new Belfast residents are among 20,000 Syrian refugees who will be resettled across the UK over the next five years.

Mr McKittrick said the families first questions were about how they could find work and access English classes, but most of their initial concerns were about their children. Half of the group are under the age of 18.

In the coming days and weeks, each will family will be assigned with support workers and personal integration plans, and will be assisted in finding longer-term accommodation in Belfast's private rented sector.

'Horrendous'

The Red Cross manager said that despite the smiling faces and waves as the refugees arrived, he could see "trauma behind those eyes" and said the agencies stood ready to help.

It is the first time Northern Ireland has participated in a refugee resettlement scheme and direct responsibility for overseeing the operation falls to Stormont's Department for Social Development.

Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey told Good Morning Ulster: "Obviously, we were all very apprehensive, but I think that pales in to insignificance when you consider what these families have come through, and some of the stories that are beginning to emerge of what has happened to these families prior to them coming - it has been horrendous for them.

"So, any challenges that we face are little compared to the challenges that they have had to come through."

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