SEVEN selfless teachers, nurses and volunteers have started a group to welcome and support families fleeing from conflict as they arrive in East Lothian.

East Lothian Horizons, composed of volunteers from Dunbar, East Linton and Athelstaneford, are on a mission to welcome refugees from war zones and help them settle into the county.

Niki Fallowfield, Mhairi Dickie, Jenni Lai, Ruth Peck, Leigh Pleasance, Elisabeth Ritchie and Tara Wright work under the auspices of the registered charity Citizens UK and with the support of the refugee resettlement organisation RESET.

The group, set up in March, will work in conjunction with the UK Government’s Community Sponsorship Scheme – the scheme enables local groups to sponsor a family currently supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Hundreds of refugees have now been sponsored in communities across the UK through this scheme.

It is still unknown when – and how many – new refugees could arrive in the county but the group will also work in partnership with East Lothian Council and Lothian Health Board to support any new arrivals.

Elisabeth Ritchie, from Dunbar, worked in education before her retirement and spent much of her career in Uganda and Malawi.

She said: “We are all horrified by the terrible scenes of desperation and mayhem at Kabul airport.

“It is easy in such situations for us to feel helpless and frustrated, unable to aid those who live so far away and in such difficult circumstances.

“We were already prepared for refugees and then the Afghan crisis happened and so it looks as if things are speeding up, so we are working as fast as we can.”

The registered voluntary group will help refugees rebuild their lives, support themselves, access healthcare and re-engage in education. In addition, they hope refugee families will integrate within the community to make friends and contribute to local life.

Elisabeth added: “The key thing is that we get accommodation. It is really important to stress that we don’t take council accommodation away from local people.

“Refugees don’t go on council waiting lists. We are looking for private accommodation rentals in the area that they will be able to afford on their housing benefit.

“As soon as they arrive, we would be getting any children into school.

“We have already been in touch with the education department of East Lothian and local schools are showing interest in sharing the news about refugees coming with their pupils.”

East Lothian could welcome newly arrived individuals from Afghanistan, as well as refugees from other parts of the world including Syria, Sudan and Eritrea.

Elisabeth said: “I want to have something to spend my time on and to contribute to society.

“We are doing lots of fundraising. We need to raise £9,000, plus another thousand or so to register with the Home Office.”

The money raised by the group will also be used for the occupants’ first month’s rent, clothes, school uniform and furniture.

Elisabeth added: “The main aim is they become independent as soon as they are able to.

“We know when refugees have settled in Scotland they have done very well. Many have gone on to set up businesses and have supported other people, so they contribute to society and will be paying their taxes like everybody else does.”

An East Lothian Council spokesperson said: “Groups and individuals from East Lothian are renowned for their compassion and willingness to help others.

“There is significant concern for the plight of refugees from Afghanistan and, as acknowledged by the motion agreed at last month’s meeting, there is recognition that the council must play its part in the arrangements through the Scottish and UK Governments and COSLA.

“Officers continue to be in contact with COSLA and are engaged in identifying the emergency, temporary and settled accommodation that is required.”

Paul McLennan, East Lothian MSP, said: “I warmly welcome the support offered by East Lothian Horizons and will be seeking a meeting to offer any support I can.”

Kenny MacAskill, East Lothian MP, said the group’s work was “remarkable and vital”, adding: “It’s a moral duty to support [refugees] and these local efforts are vital.”

Martin Whitfield, South Scotland MSP, said: “East Lothian has a proud track record of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers, and providing them with the help, support and care they need to re-settle and begin their new lives. I very much welcome the important work being undertaken by the volunteers at East Lothian Horizons.”

Craig Hoy, South Scotland MSP, said: “I wish the team well in their fundraising and in preparing to welcome newly arrived refugees to help them build a new life in East Lothian.”

Colin Beattie, Musselburgh MSP added: “These efforts are greatly appreciated and required within our communities and I wish the group success going forward.”

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