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The Syrian refugees who went to Bute

Notes from a small island: the Syrian refugees who went to Bute

Once a popular holiday destination, the Scottish isle where Emma Irving hails from has suffered in recent decades. But four years ago, at Christmas, things started to change

Once a popular holiday destination, the Scottish isle where Emma Irving hails from has suffered in recent decades. But four years ago, at Christmas, things started to change

Emma Irving | December 18th 2019

When I reach the ferry’s upper deck, I am sore-footed, sweaty and grinning from ear to ear. It is Christmas Eve and once again I have only just caught the last boat back to Bute. The ferry is unmoored and suddenly we are cut free from the Scottish mainland, bound for a western isle that has always been its own world. But just as the lights of Rothesay, the island’s main town, come into view, we are told we have to turn back. The sea is too rough for the boat to find safe harbour. The wind whips viciously across the deck and the passengers let out a collective groan.

The first cohort of Syrian refugees did not get even that close the first time they tried to reach Bute back in December 2015. Bad weather meant the boat couldn’t leave port at Wemyss Bay, on the coast just west of Glasgow, so they were left clutching their belongings in the ferry terminal until an official piled them onto a coach for the three-hour trip north, where a smaller ferry offers passage in stormy weather. Some cheerful government rep thought it would be a good idea to pass the time with stories of the shipwrecks between coast and island, and of the basking sharks that used to haunt this water: “Don’t worry pal, we haven’t seen Jaws for a wee while.” The refugees eventually made it to the island, soaked and wind-lashed. Scotland’s welcome was in many ways about as Scottish as you can get: slow, defined by the weather, full of questionable humour and restrained hope.      

A sliver of land 15-miles long in the Firth of Clyde, Bute is probably the last place on Earth you’d think to rehome around 100 Syrian refugees. The main town, Rothesay, is a happy string of slate-grey shops, half of which look worse for wear and the other half of which are closed. There is one traffic light on the island, installed with great pride in the early part of the decade and casually ignored ever since. The Buteman, the island’s only and now defunct newspaper, ran headlines such as “Six Foot Dog Visits North Bute Primary School.”

Adrift A view from the ferry to Bute

The town is in the top 15% most deprived places in Scotland. Yet Argyll and Bute Council, which administers 23 islands as well as sections of the Scottish mainland, has the third-highest intake of Syrian refugees relative to the population of Britain. It’s a small contribution to the fallout from a bloody civil war which has led to 12m people – over half the country’s prewar population – being forced to flee Syria or killed. The Scottish government has welcomed twice as many Syrian refugees as the UK average. Bute was chosen because it had “available social housing” and is “closer to the central belt” for medical support, the council says. The nearest fully functioning hospital is a helicopter ride away, and social housing is “available” because the 6,000-strong population has been dwindling since the 1970s, when the rise of cheap flights meant tourists could swap Bute for Benidorm, sending the once-popular holiday destination into decline. 

It is one of the only ways in which the island has discernibly changed since my grandparents were born here in the 1920s. Bute’s churches are Norse, the burial mounds Neolithic, the coastline prehistoric. Time becomes measured by the tide’s swelling and subsiding. Sometimes it even seems to stand still. The movement of the ferry threads the lives of islanders together, knitting them into a particular kind of kinship. When six-year-old Alesha MacPhail was murdered on Bute in 2018, the community was devastated – this is a place where doors are left unlocked and children play on the street. But it remains close, proud. Knowing your neighbour is vital when you are held in strange abeyance in the middle of the ocean. Outsiders may not know these unwritten rules, and islanders may not want to tell them. 

I can understand what it feels like to be both. I was born in Scotland but moved to London aged five for school, and would return to Bute to see my family every couple of months with a strange Sassenach voice. Staying with my grandmother in the house my father was born in or visiting my great uncle just down the road, I would try to slip into their west-coast lilt and shrink myself into a clearer identity. Walking along the beach, I felt on the cusp of two worlds: land and sea, child and adult, Scotland and England. For me, home became somewhere you leave. Bute was unchanging; it was a place of rest while life continued elsewhere. Then, last Christmas, aged 23, when I returned to the island for a few weeks of the tried and tested trio of beach, baths and Netflix, I began to realise I did not know the island at all.

The Syrian barber of Bute Mounzer Darsani

Mounzer Darsani is a vast bull of a man, with a great black beard, features that wouldn’t look amiss on a pirate and hands you would trust with your newborn. The first time I met him he was standing proudly in the doorway of his shop on Gallowgate, a narrow one-way street in the heart of Rothesay. He cheerfully waved me over, comb in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Mounzer was the first refugee to set up a business on Bute. “The first Syrian barbershop in UK!” he said proudly, as we made small talk while a coming storm darkened the edges of the sky. “If you go anywhere in UK, Turkish barber, Turkish barber.” He gesticulated wildly, narrowly missing an unsuspecting seagull. “Why no Syrian barber?” 

Old town road A view of Rothesay

Over the next year, whenever I was in town I would stop by Mounzer’s salon, slipping inside for a tea and a blether (his word, not mine). I learned about Mounzer’s past: he grew up in Al-Zabadani, a beautiful hilltop town where he picked fresh fruit from the trees and looked out over sweeping hills towards Damascus. It was the first city to fall to the Free Syrian Army, an event that was the catalyst for years of bloodshed and a brutal siege. Mounzer was imprisoned before he managed to escape to his family in Lebanon; it’s a subject that turns him uncharacteristically silent. “We had very, very bad time,” he said. “When the army making siege, no food, no anything.” I also learned that Mounzer’s arrival in Scotland was somewhat serendipitous. “When I am in Syria before the war I watch ‘Braveheart’,” he told me. “My dream before the war, before everything, is to visit Scotland. My luck bring me here.” Before adding, diplomatically: “Syria is like mother. You can’t live without your mother. But now UK for me like beautiful wife. And you love your wife like you never love your mother.” 

Mounzer’s barbershop was a sign that the Syrians were putting down roots. I felt as compelled by his story – and by his passion for Bute – as I did by the fact that a community I had assumed to be fixed was in fact changing as quickly as the winds. Through Mounzer I met Fadel and Rahaf, a couple who set up Rayan’s Restaurant, the Syrian takeaway next door; named after their fourth child, who was born on Bute. I also met Youssef, who works for them. He’s a man with huge brown eyes, bounding enthusiasm and no head for business. To this day I can’t wander into the shop without him gifting me croissants or trying to undercharge me for food I have ordered. He’s on a brave, albeit lonely, mission to turn the takeaway into a mighty Indian-Italian-Syrian-Scottish fusion. 

Slowly but surely, through the Syrians I began to relearn my home: the best place to buy lentils, who was moving to the mainland, what the local gossips were whispering about. I realised, too, that there are traditions on Bute the Syrians don’t understand: the islanders’ staunch refusal to order food without a side of chips, for example, or the way that shops close at midday on Wednesdays. Looking through their lens, Bute suddenly seemed marked with rituals I had never noticed, as indelible and surprising as the streams that run through its soil.

One Sunday morning under a blue-resin sky, I joined Youssef for breakfast at home with his family. He lives on the top-floor flat on one of the two streets that house most of the Syrians, which are adjacent to one another. I would imagine this is to encourage community spirit, but there’s no getting away from the fact that both streets have a mournful feel, as though they know that they occupy a corner of the world that has been left behind. I puffed up three flights of worn, paint-flecked stairs to find his gentle 22-year-old wife and two young children peering round the door. The room was cold, far too cold for a one-year-old and a four-year-old, but on the table was what can only be described as a feast fit for kings. Piled high with boiled eggs, flatbreads, hard cheeses, olives and spices, there were enough plates for a party of ten. I asked Youssef where on earth they had found the olives. “Glasgow has many treasures,” he grinned. Although we sometimes stumbled when it came to understanding each other’s language, the meaning of the breakfast was deft. It promised caring and protection, intimacy and respect. Youssef knew that home is found not in a compass but in a bowl. New flavours were beginning to run through the island, and I was not the only one to succumb to Syrian hospitality. 

Sweet tooth Momen Helmi

Helmi’s Patisserie nestles proudly in Rothesay’s waterfront, its candyfloss colour standing out like the Disney Castle. The first time I visited it was barely 11am, but inside it was buzzing. The cakes were piled high, the coffee machine steamed and hissed, and groups of old women dabbed at their mouths with pink napkins. Every table was busy. A good-looking young man standing behind the counter, Momen Helmi – son of the owner - beamed at me as I walked in. “Good morning, friend,” he said in a Middle-Eastern accent laced with a Gaelic lilt. “What would you like?” I sat down at the end of a friendly looking woman’s table, with a cup of Earl Grey and a delicious strawberry cream concoction that promised Type 2 diabetes. While pretending to read my book, I listened to the conversations around me. Rival groups of old women were swapping local gossip, competing over who could whisper most ostentatiously and cackle the loudest. Two paunchy, cheerful policemen wanted to buy some baklava “for the rounds”. A toddler screamed unless his mouth was stuffed with cake, while a couple got misty-eyed over their mahalabia – a milky Middle Eastern pudding. There was more life in this café than I had seen on Bute in years.     

I slowly got chatting to the woman at my table. She was wiry and birdlike, a retired teacher who had lived on Bute for the past decade with her husband. He had passed away in the summer. “The thing is, everything changes, doesn’t it? And there’s feck all you can do about it, so you might as well make the most of life.” The woman loved Bute so much that when she talked she made the shapes of its cliffs and valleys with her hands – a pantomime of the land. I asked her what she thought of the Syrians. “Oh, it’s a lovely thing they’ve done, setting up these shops,” she said. “The island needed a boost. I come in here all the time now, just to watch the world go by. Especially when it gets a bit lonely.” Then she lowered her voice conspiratorially. “But it must be difficult for them, don’t you think? It being such a wee island. And it’s not like we have a mosque. Or falafel.”

I thought about the challenge of overcoming preconceptions in such a small community. I had recently heard from one of my father’s friends that some islanders were under the false impression that the Syrian businesses were fully funded and that they received £30,000 a year in benefits; in fact, the majority of support given to the entrepreneurs came through the business gateway service that is available to everyone, or from local trusts. The Home Office provides full support to refugees for the first year of resettlement; after that it helps the council with costs incurred in taking on refugees; £5,000 for each refugee in year two, which tapers down to just £1,000 in year five. It’s not much, but it can seem unfair to native islanders who don’t have much themselves. One local man told me that watching the Syrian children ride council-funded bikes felt unjust when some locals could not provide them for their own. Momen had told me about a friend he thought he’d made at college on the mainland; when she found out where he was from she screamed that the Syrians were terrorists and that he should leave Scotland. She has ignored him ever since. I asked the woman in the café if she knew anyone who was unhappy about the Syrians’ arrival. “It’s not an easy place to live, Bute,” she said. “Not a lot of jobs. And not a lot of help to go around.” 

Unsurprisingly, it has been even more challenging for the Syrians to find work. According to a council spokesperson, some are still on benefits. Each week, two-hours of English lessons are provided by the council but it’s not enough to facilitate fluency, hurting job prospects. The island’s one school has set up a second language unit with interpreters and sourced an Arabic teacher to try to bridge the gap, but it has not been easy for older children who arrived having been in and out of education, or having never attended school at all. The council and school provide counselling, but the effects of the horror of war still resonate: children would not sit with bags under their chairs, for example, and were initially terrified of the sound of the helicopter that takes people to hospital. 

Nor is there real cohesion in the Syrians’ experience. Some locals see them as a collective, bound together by common culture and language. But they have come to Bute with no singular identity: the entrepreneurs were from higher socio-economic backgrounds, while some members of the community are not literate. The tensions between the Syrians are what you would expect if you took 100 Brits at random and put them on an island in the Pacific. 

I walked up Gallowgate and turned left along the shore, then into Bute Oasis, a food bank and charity shop that is run by Angela Callahan. She is a woman with a passion for pink turtlenecks and the determination of an army general, which she put to good use when she was on the 40-strong welcome committee for the Syrians. Several of the refugees have subsequently worked at her food bank. “They came in and asked me if they can volunteer, which is fabulous,” she said. “They want to give something back to the community, just the same as everyone else. We all look after each other – that’s what community is all about.” She is one of the many Scots I know or have met who are quietly determined to welcome the Syrians with open arms. People like Maureen Shaw, a teacher who travelled to Glasgow with some students to meet the families who were moving to the island; or the gentle Father Michael, who has a haircut with Mounzer each Saturday before preaching to his congregation of three. Life is not always easy here, but it is filled with quiet empathy. I remember something Mounzer had said to me once: “In Scotland, 80% of people good, 20% not so good. On Bute, 90% good.” 

Bute is never quite what it seems. The weather is fickle: ink-like clouds spread across a clear sky in a moment. The light turns blue water to graphite just as fast. The “mosque” is a corner of the town hall that looks like a hospital waiting room, given over to the Muslim Syrians for prayer on a Friday. Rahaf and Fadel have recently moved to the mainland, where they can buy halal meat. Mounzer is worried that his children are more comfortable speaking English than Arabic. Traditions slip year on year, beaten back by the winds of change. They are hard to hold on to. But for the native islanders, traditions are slipping in a different direction; a new island is emerging on the horizon.

One night a year or so after the first Syrians arrived, I walked into a disco. Heat had steamed up the windows of the town hall. Fruit juices stood proudly under the coloured lights, and shortbread jostled for space with baklava. Some of the Syrians conversed easily with their Scottish neighbours, making jokes or dancing, while others hung back on the edge of the group. There were huddles of people speaking quickly and excitedly in Arabic, others standing apart and alone. One teenage Syrian girl looked like she would rather be anywhere else. 

I felt awkward too: unmoored from my family context, I was conscious of the distance between me and the islanders. But then I noticed how the European music was punctuated with excited shouts in Arabic and laughter that had no discernible homeland. The paint was peeling off the walls, outside it began to rain and the teenager was still looking nervous, but Bute is wilder and richer than we think; that is what was clear from where I stood in the corner of the room. Now when I look at the ferry, I don’t see a boat that will return me to a cold and ancient landscape. I see a path to a home filled with life under a wide Scottish sky.

This article has been amended. Bad weather prevented the boat carrying refugees from leaving port at Weymss Bay, not Colintraive. Momen is the son of the owner of Helmi's Patisserie, not the nephew. We have also clarified that a helicopter is used to reach the nearest fully functioning hospital – there is a community hospital in Rothesay.