A WAR that made refugees out of hundreds of thousands of people inspired a small group of Swindon volunteers to help.

A dozen volunteers answered an advertisement placed in the Evening Advertiser, calling on people to help Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing and war in the Balkans. Hundreds more Swindonians donated clothing and household items to the homeless refugees.

This year, the charity they set up in 2000 celebrates its 18th anniversary.

Beginnings

When it started, the Harbour Project had an income of £3,000 a year, 12 volunteers and initially supported around a dozen Kosovans.

Now, it has six members of staff and 60 volunteers helping at any one time around 400 refugees and asylum seekers living in Swindon.

The charity was the brainchild of Dorothy Leith. Andrea Hughes, one of 12 founder members, said: “She had this idea for a charity, after we were all moved and distressed by the war in the Balkans. There was a mass exodus of refugees and we felt that we ought to do something.

“We volunteered out of compassion, when we saw people homeless and arriving in the UK with just a suitcase. No clothes and no money.”

The volunteers were given a grounding by former social worker Phyllida Ware in the basics of supporting traumatised families who had fled war torn Kosovo. “We learned a lot,” said Andrea. “A deep respect for loss: loss of family, loss of homes, jobs, family and food.”

From those early beginnings, the charity has grown: “We started from very small foundations, but look at it now. I think it’s a wonderful place. There’s no one person in this whole organisation who hasn’t had this rare quality of magnanimity. This is what helps us value all who come through the door. The thing that we look for in our volunteers is those who have generosity of spirit, who wish to make the world a better place.”

One woman, 52, who asked not to give her name, arrived in Swindon from Kosovo in 2000 with her husband and two children. She said: “Harbour gave us amazing support, especially with the paperwork.” She later volunteered with the charity: “What I got I wanted to give back.”

The woman and her husband had little English when they came to Swindon. Stephanie Glennie, another founder member of the Harbour Project, managed to overcome the language barrier. “I had a little bit of Italian and he had a little bit more Italian than me,” she said.

Stephanie added: “My dad was in the army when I was a child. I moved to a lot of different places and I know what it’s like to be a new person in a strange place. When I found out what was happening in Kosovo, I wanted to help.

“Volunteering with the Harbour Project has been very rewarding. You meet people from so many different backgrounds. It broadens your perspective and gives you a better understanding of other people’s gifts.”

'Welcome and respect for all'

In 18 years, the charity has grown substantially. But chairman David Rowlands, who recently won a Swindon and Wiltshire Pride Award, said the values behind the Harbour Project are the same: “Our central tenet has remained welcome, respect for all, safety and friendship.”

Claire Garrett, trustee for Swindon's Harbour Project, has welcomed the new social integration report. Picture: DAVE COX
Claire Garrett, trustee for Swindon's Harbour Project, has welcomed the new social integration report. Picture: DAVE COX

Claire Garrett

Chief executive Claire Garrett joined the charity in June. Speaking at an event marking the Harbour Project’s anniversary, she said: “It’s amazing it feels like a big responsibility. I’m hoping we have a lot more birthdays to come. It started from small foundations and now it’s a big organisation that provides support to a lot of people.

“The main thing is to build independence. We’re there to make sure people have options so they can build a start for themselves.”

The Harbour Project has organised courses in maths and English, as well as focussed support for those keen to get back into work.

They have included Syrian optician Khulood Mamkalo, a mother-of-five whose thriving business and life in north Syria city Afrin was ruined by civil war.

Khulood Mamkalo fled Syria 18 months ago for Britain. In Aleppo she was a successful optician. Pictured Khulood Mamkalo..18/02/18 Thomas Kelsey.
Khulood Mamkalo fled Syria 18 months ago for Britain. In Aleppo she was a successful optician. Pictured Khulood Mamkalo..18/02/18 Thomas Kelsey.

Khulood Mamkalo

Keen to get back into the business, she told the Swindon Advertiser earlier this year:“I miss making glasses. I built my business, I built my future. But the war destroyed everything.”

Refugees fled civil war hell

ONE former refugee made the terrifying 1,600 mile journey across Europe with his family after gunmen put a price on his head.

Joe, not his real name, arrived in the UK with his wife and two young children in October 1998. They had boarded a lorry in Kosovo, eventually arriving in London.

He has built a new life for his family in Swindon with help from the Harbour Project volunteers.

The man’s close family were among the lucky ones. Some of his closest friends were among the thousands of people killed in the year-long conflict.

He told the Adver: “My country was at war. My wife and I had good jobs, but I found out that my name was on a hit list.

“We arranged to leave Kosovo by lorry and we arrived in London.

“We had to leave our family and go straight away because otherwise we would have been killed. Some of my friends and my cousins died during the war but the rest of my family survived.”

It was seven years before Joe returned to his native country to see his family.

“I went back to see them for the first time in 2005 and for me the country had changed a lot,” he said. “Everything was destroyed during the war and now they are rebuilding their lives.”

Separated by 10 years and hundreds of miles, Abdin Omar was forced to give up his well-paid job as a geologist when the Syrian civil war hit Aleppo. He said: “This kind of job, geology, is one of the first victims of the war.”

'Asylum seekers should be allowed to work'

CAMPAIGNERS have called for major improvements to the asylum process.

Annie Vickers of Swindon City of Sanctuary blasted: “The asylum process clearly isn’t fit for purpose. It’s unacceptable that people are easily waiting more than six months for decisions on their asylum claim.

“If they get a positive result, they can get on with their lives. If it’s negative they are left in limbo. How can you plan for the day? What motivates you if you don’t know what the future will hold?”

She said those left waiting more than six months for a decision on their asylum claim should be given the right to work. Currently, people are not allowed to work unless they have been given explicit permission by the government.

This week, Scottish Conservatives called on their Westminster counterparts to relax the rules around letting refugees work. Communities secretary Aileen Campbell said "People should be welcomed and supported to integrate from day one, not just when refugee status and leave to remain have been granted."

Concerns have also been raised by some campaigners, including the Coram Children’s Legal Centre in London, that young asylum seekers who came to the UK as children were being told they could not study. However, the Home Office has said there is nothing in the immigration rules to prevent someone from studying.

Robert Buckland, MP for South Swindon and Solicitor General in the Conservative government, said: “Due process has to take place and I would rather see a thorough examination of the facts rather than decisions that, whilst they may be speedy, could be the wrong ones. We have got to get the balance right.”

He said he was interested in potential changes to volunteering rules that could benefit asylum seekers, allowing them to give their time freely in return for help from, for example, a tutor.