Sherborne’s community unites to help refugees

18 August 2023

More than 100 refugees from Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan have been warmly welcomed in Sherborne, Dorset. Some have since relocated while others, like Manal and her family, have stayed and taken their place in the community, bringing their own skills and experience.

The aroma of Manal’s feast fills the air, making the 50 hungry guests eager to taste the Syrian delicacies. Syrian music, along with photos of the country before and after the war, create the mood for the event. This is the third evening hosted by Al Rayan, the catering company run by Manal and her husband, Abdul.

The couple and their two young children escaped from Damascus in 2012, fleeing the civil war. They then spent years in Egypt, struggling to survive, before arriving in the UK in 2015 as part of a UN refugee resettlement scheme. They moved to Sherborne two years later.

 “We were nervous at first, but people here helped us and welcomed us. We found a family here,” says Manal.

The residents of Sherborne, an historic market town in Dorset, have welcomed over 100 refugees from Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan in recent years, and have plans to welcome more.

The story began in 2013 when Penny and Geoff Gardner, along with other members of the town’s Cheap Street Church, wanted to help Syrians fleeing the war. They asked their local MP if they could accept refugees, but he said no, so they travelled to the Calais migrant camp with donations and spent a week helping and talking to refugees and volunteers.

During another trip to Calais, they witnessed French police clearing the settlement, which was known locally as ‘the jungle’. “It was traumatic to see them bulldozing the camp in the rain,” Penny remembers.

Back in Sherborne, the group raised awareness of the refugees’ plight, organised events and invited speakers. By 2017, they had welcomed five refugee families into their town, and helped them with housing, jobs, English language skills and paperwork. Cath, a local social worker, helped Manal and Abdul’s young son, who needed specialist support due to being autistic.

The Sherborne community was generous. Some residents hosted families, some bought houses for them and Phyllis, a 90-year-old woman who died recently, gave up her house for a Syrian family. “Phyllis also helped at the warehouse where we store donations,” Penny recalls.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Sherborne was ready. They offered drop-in sessions and English classes to all refugees. “We practised interview skills with them and now they have jobs! We moved the class to the evening to suit everyone,” adds Celia, who, through her work with the charity network Share is an emergency contact for people in the community who are supporting refugee families.  

Many of the refugees have become an integral part of the community, with some volunteering to deliver groceries to those in need during the pandemic.

The events run by Manal and Abdul’s Al Rayan (Arabic for ‘door of heaven’) catering company are aimed at sharing food and supporting good causes. The first meal helped refugees, the second specifically helped Ukrainians, and the third supported children with special needs.