Syrian refugees living in Wakefield have discovered links between their new home town and Syria during a World Jewish Relief STEP workshop at Wakefield Museum. The course was designed to help them learn more about their new home town and the unexpected connections are now part of the new 'Shared Futures' display at the museum which the refugees helped put together. Yvette Cooper, MP came to launch the exhibition and spent time speaking to some of the refugees that took part about their stories and experiences.
During the 5-week course at the Wakefield Museum the refugees explored the local heritage and traditional working industries of the Wakefield district and shared memories of their own pasts and working life. They discovered that in the early twentieth century Wakefield imported liquorice from Syria to be used in the confectionary industry and that while in Syria, the father of two of the refugees worked for the Wakefield based Sirdar woollen company which is still operational in Alverthorpe.
Yvette Cooper, MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said, “It was amazing to meet with the participants of World Jewish Relief’s STEP project and to hear about the connections they’ve discovered between their lives in Syria and Wakefield – from liquorice to wool. The exhibition at the Wakefield Museum is a brilliant example of the community coming together, and a reminder of what Jo Cox said, that we have “more in common than that which divides us”.
Mohammad (47) and originally from Hama, Syria has been in the UK for almost 2 years and was particularly interested to learn about Wakefield’s history of sweet making during the workshops. He had worked in his family’s confectionary business in Syria since he was 7 years old making delicacies like Maamoul and Barazek, which he still makes at home. He hopes to get work in the confectionary industry.
Osama (46) is originally from Homs, Syria where he owned a clothes store in the market. He says the course taught him about the history of Wakefield that he wouldn’t have learnt in daily life and introduced new words to help him improve his English. He was fascinated by Wakefield’s connection to the liquorice industry in Syria and brought a traditional black Syrian drink to the workshop made from liquorice root.
The refugees were taking part in World Jewish Relief’s Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP). It helps refugees across West Yorkshire and Coventry to get into work and is delivered in Wakefield by Horton Housing Association.
Janice Lopatkin is UK Programme Director and established STEP in 2016. Last month she received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to refugees. She says, “It was great to work with Wakefield Museum on this project and wonderful that Yvette Cooper came to open the exhibition. The refugees who took part in this programme arrived with virtually no knowledge of the area and the workshops were designed to help them explore the history and culture of their new home. Understanding more about the place in which you live is an essential part of integration and something which the Jewish community has much experience of doing. This project has motivated these refugees to get involved in the community and helped them to improve their English which will significantly boost their chance of finding employment.”
Esther Graham at Wakefield Museum, helped organise the workshops and the subsequent display and says, “The Shared Futures project has been a great opportunity for us to identify and explore shared heritage with the resettled refugee communities locally. We hope the display will inspire people to reflect on the way that simple everyday objects can represent global connections. Heritage is an essential ingredient in supporting social cohesion and community wellbeing and it was wonderful to work with World Jewish Relief on this project.”