City welcome for refugees

The first of more than a dozen families forced to flee from war torn Africa are set to start a new life in Norfolk this week. But what can they expect when they arrive? Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

The first of more than a dozen families forced to flee from war torn Africa are set to start a new life in Norfolk this week .

But what can they expect when they arrive? Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

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Out of Africa and into the grey skies, driving rain and winds of Norfolk. Stepping off a coach from London, less than a week after landing in the UK, 20 refugees arrived in Norwich yesterday afternoon to be taken to their new homes.

But the cold weather belies the warm welcome that awaits the city's newest inhabitants - 60 people forced to flee their homes from war torn Democratic Republic of Congo to a refugee camp in Zambia. Many will have survived unimaginable hardships including torture, rape or persecution.

But their arrival, as part of the Home Office's Gateway programme, marks a new era in the city's long history of extending the hand of friendship to those who have fled persecution in their homelands.

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The £575,000 scheme aims to help some of the most traumatised families displaced by conflicts around the world.

Gervaise Kouloungou Mamba will be a fellow countryman welcoming the families to Norwich.

A former asylum seeker, who was dispersed to the city with his 11-year-old daughter, he knows only to well the sense of disorientation that many will be feeling.

“It was difficult, I had to break down so many barriers like the language, culture and the weather,” he said. “I applied for some jobs not knowing the language or how to fill in the forms, but I found support from organisations such as the Learning Shop and City College,” he said. “I was doing some voluntary work with the Red Cross and the CAB and after that this job became available. I applied for it and was successful. It was my first job in the UK.”

But despite the ups and downs of dealing with life in a new country, he believes the experience will be positive for both communities.

“I think the city will have a new experience which will benefit all of the community. I'm looking forward to meeting those who are coming. I'm sure they will make a good contribution. They are people who have worked, teachers, doctors, they have qualifications.”

Patrick Ngoie, who is from the neighbouring Republic of Congo, and came to this country as a student, added: “It will be good for me as I can't remember the last time I spoke Swahili,” he said. “I will make sure I can give them advice as well,” he said. “They can go out with people like me to find out more about things here.”

Both Gervaise and Patrick help to run the Norfolk French Speakers Association, formed to offer help and advice to French speaking Africans.

Sue Gee, the county council's asylum service manager, who is overseeing the families' arrival, said the project had attracted a lot of interest because it was the first scheme in the country where people were being housed in private rented accommodation instead of council houses. Also involved were the three district councils covering the Norwich area.

“There are four families coming in the first group of all ages,” she said.

“They will sign up to their tenancies and then be taken to the houses they will be staying in and shown how to use things. In the first week they will also be doing everything from getting a national insurance number to registering with a doctor.

“One of the things I'm trying to do is make a link between them and a local family near to where they are living so that if something does go wrong they can walk around the corner for help. There are all sorts of things that are unfamiliar ranging from driving arrangements to childcare.”

She added: “People have been so helpful and supportive and really rising to the occasion wanting to help be part of something that's' really positive for Norfolk and Norwich.”

Can you speak Swahili? Norfolk County Council is looking for eastern Congolese Swahili speakers to help interpret for the group. Although the families can speak French, this is their second language and so Swahili interpreters are needed to help them adapt to life in Norfolk.

Anyone interested in becoming a trained interpreter can contact 01223 346875 or Valerie Gidney 01603 495131 for more information.