SISTERS who fled civil war in Syria have spoken of how they have rebuilt their lives in the North-East.

Sabah and Rabiaa Al Hassoun, along with their sister Hasna, were among the first to be resettled in Durham as part of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

With next to no English and no experience of British culture, they arrived in May 2016, four years after first fleeing from their home in Homs.

Forced to leave the city in 2012, around a year after it was first besieged, part of the family first fled to Lebanon, where the women’s parents still live.

Since then, their family of ten – seven girls and three boys – have been scattered across Syria, Lebanon, the UK and France.

“Everything was being bombed,” said Rabiaa. “A bomb fell on our house. We had been getting ready to leave so we had prepared.” She added: “We lost a lot of our neighbours in the war. Every house, they had someone killed in the war.”

Fast forward two years, all three are studying English and maths at New College Durham.

Rabiaa, 24, who was three years into a law degree when she moved to the UK, is hoping to return to university and is due to start an apprenticeship at Durham County Council, working as an integration officer.

Sabah, 32, who worked as a teaching assistant at a primary school in Syria, also wants to attend university to study English, history or Arabic while Hasna, 42, has turned to poetry to help her express the trauma of losing her children and both her legs in a devastating shell attack.

They have all received help settling in from the Durham City of Sanctuary charity, which was founded in 2016.

Based on Durham’s centuries old tradition of offering sanctuary to those in need, it offers a welcoming face to those rebuilding their lives here as part of the resettlement scheme, which is managed by the council.

The charity complements the support given by the authority, offering conversation groups and drop-ins, to help with befriending, practical and emotional support, group trips and fitness classes to help improve their physical wellbeing.

Founding member Louise Allison, from Durham, said: “It’s snowballed really. We started as a welcome charity and we were there as soon as they arrived at the airport.

“It’s amazing when you see the shoulders come down and relax and see the children laugh.”

Both Rabiaa and Sabah are now trustees of the charity, which has around 150 members.

Sabah said: “When we first arrived, it was the first time we had left our parents and our family. It was very difficult, a big change to live alone and be independent and speak English.

“Now, it’s very good. Our language is improving every day. When we go back to our area it’s like coming to my village – it feels like home now.

“We feel like we’re not alone.”

“It’s fabulous,” added Rabiaa (a word recently added to her vocabulary). “When we came we were a bit afraid; it’s a different culture, a different language. We thought maybe be can’t do anything. When we came our English wasn’t great .

“It’s not difficult now. We’ve met a lot of people. We are very social so we go out a lot and do voluntary work.”

There are now around 120 refugees living in communities across the county, with several new families set to arrive in May.

The charity, which has also been working with schools to educate children in the hope of ensuring refugees are welcomed by the wider community, is seeking new volunteers from across County Durham to help with their arrival.

Volunteer Justine Nimmins, from Durham, said: “There have been some isolated incidents but generally County Durham has been very welcoming.”

She added: “A lot of the refugees are now doing work experience and volunteering and working with charities. People are keen and they want to get their English good enough to become economically independent and pay back the communities that have welcomed them. Just because some of their English isn’t great, it doesn’t mean they know their stuff.

“They’re part of our family now. It very much feels like that.”

As well as new volunteers, the charity wants to continue its fundraising to provide future support and family trips.

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