Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

Long days but peace at last: The Syrians observing Ramadan on a remote Scottish island

More than 20 Syrian refugee families have been resettled on the Isle of Bute since 2015

Rothesay, the main settlement on the Isle of Bute. Claire Corkery / The National
Rothesay, the main settlement on the Isle of Bute. Claire Corkery / The National

For millions around the world Ramadan is tough but for the Syrian residents of the Isle of Bute, the days in the holy month are much longer than in their home country.

“In Syria, it’s not as long, usually about 14 hours. But here it can be up to 18,” Bute resident Fadel Helmi told The National.

Bute, which lies just off the west coast of Scotland, has welcomed 24 Syrian refugee families to its shores since 2015 as part of a UK-wide resettlement initiative. It committed to relocating 20,000 Syrians by May 2020. Council ward Argyll and Bute was one of the first areas in the UK to volunteer for the programme.

Mr Helmi arrived in Rothesay, the island’s main settlement, with his wife Rahaf and three children, Nawar, Zinah, and Bacher in October 2016. The family had previously spent four years in Jordan, having fled the fighting in their home city of Damascus in 2012.

Back home in Damascus, Mr Helmi was a civil engineer but he has been unable to resume his career in the UK because his qualification is not recognised. He could study for a year to gain the requisite certificate but that would mean regular travel to the mainland, which is only reachable by ferry or plane.

Instead Mr Helmi has supported his wife in opening Bute’s first Syrian restaurant, serving traditional Middle Eastern favourites such as felafel, baba ganoush, houmous and ylanji, vegetable-stuffed grape leaves. Everything is freshly made by Mrs Helmi. Most of the residents of the island have been keen to try some of the food on offer, but some needed a little coaxing.

“Older people thought felafel would be like eating stones,” he laughed. “But now it’s very popular here.”

Rayan Syrian take-away and restaurant. Claire Corkery / The National
Rayan Syrian take-away and restaurant. Claire Corkery / The National

The restaurant, which opened in 2018, is named after the couple’s fourth child, Rayan, two, who was born in Bute. His eldest two children are fasting during Ramadan, while his third child, Bacher, eight, is fasting on days he is not at school.

For even the most devout Muslims, being surrounded by delicious cooking smells all day must be an added challenge while trying to fast. But not for Mr Helmi.

“It’s easy,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years.”

Next door, another Syrian has set up shop. Mounzer Al Darsani opened Orient Salon in 2017, offering haircuts, beard trimming and a traditional hot towel shave.

Mr Darsani, who was a barber in Syria, politely declined to be interviewed by The National. The Syrians here have attracted a lot of media interest, some of it not always positive, with a few outlets seizing on any hint that the tiny island’s newest residents might not be integrating into Scottish life.

But a visit to Bute proves reports of Syrians isolating themselves from the rest of society are completely unfounded. Rather the entrepreneurial spirit that they have brought with them has been a welcome addition to an area that was showing signs of economic decline. Unlike on the mainland, the population of Bute has been dwindling. In 2001, the population was 7,228 but at the last census in 2011, that number had fallen by 10 per cent to 6,498.

Argyll and Bute councillor Len Scoullar said the resettlement scheme had been a success story for the island. “People speak highly of the services the Syrians provide and they have integrated very well,” he told The National.

Far from distancing themselves from the locals, many of the Syrians who came over have worked hard to assimilate. Two Syrians who arrived knowing very little English began volunteering in a local charity shop, Oxfam, to try to improve their language skills. Both have now found paid employment, after gaining enough work experience in the shop. Sida Lease, a former spraypainter in Syria, has found work locally at Port Bannatyne, painting boats.

Youssef Fainajjay, a married father of two children, one of whom was born on the island, is instead working at a kebab house on the waterfront.

Mr Fainajjay, who is still working to improve his English, told The National he was “very happy” with his new job.

Liz Reid, shop manager of Oxfam in Bute, is delighted with how her two volunteers have progressed. “They are both such lovely men,” she said, adding that Mr Fainajjay has become a good friend, attending her wedding last year on the island.

Tasnim Helmi, a cousin of Fadel’s, works in Helmi’s Patisserie further down the road from Rayan Restaurant. Her father Bashar and husband Mohamad opened the business in a former card shop, converting the building into a bright and airy cafe. French-style fresh cream filled patisserie is served as well as Middle Eastern treats such as baklava and fataya, made by Mohamad, who was formerly a baker in Syria. The cafe has been a huge success, with locals and tourists coming back time and time again. When Helmi’s opened in June 2018, they sold out of everything.

Mohammad Helmi makes all of the cakes and treats at Helmi's Patisserie. Claire Corkery / The National
Mohammad Helmi makes all of the cakes and treats at Helmi's Patisserie. Claire Corkery / The National

“They like our cakes, the pastries, the bread rolls, the croissants,” Mrs Helmi said. “It’s different from what they are used to. They always say that they used to have thick and dense cake with buttercream and what we have here is light and fluffy cake with fresh cream.”

While Mrs Helmi spoke good English when she arrived in Scotland, setting up a business was not a simple process. The family searched for premises for a while before settling on a shop on the waterfront and had to get permission from the council. She said knowing English is crucial to being able to make a success of a business on Bute.

“In a new country, you don’t know where to get your supplies from,” she said. “You have to go to the council to get permission. We took permission to alter the shop from a retail shop to a restaurant. That took lots of time and steps. For searching and buying things like equipment, everything needs language. This is the most important thing.”

Some of the refugees have experienced difficulties with learning the language. Two Syrians tried to volunteer at another charity shop in Rothesay but did not have enough English to do the job. For others, the horror of what they experienced in Syria is difficult to move past. One of the Syrian children still has not spoken since leaving the war-torn country.

Tasnim Helmi working at Helmi's Patisserie. Claire Corkery / The National
Tasnim Helmi working at Helmi's Patisserie. Claire Corkery / The National

Mrs Helmi was training to be a medical laboratory technician but the war meant she had to leave her studies. She would like to resume her studies one day, but for now is content with running the bakery, which oddly is a welcome source of distraction during Ramadan

“Working makes it easier, you pass the time faster,” she said. “But I don’t have a sweet tooth. When you work with cakes all day, you do not want to eat them all the time.”

For Mrs Helmi, her husband and her five-year-old daughter, their future is very much in Scotland. She is even considering expanding into the mainland.

“Why not? Maybe you will see Helmi’s famous bakery chain in the future.”

Updated: May 12, 2019 06:04 PM