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Local effort to help refugees gains momentum

Volunteers helping the Shetland Solidarity with Refugees effort at Hamnavoe Hall on Wednesday evening. From left to right: Kaila McCulloch, Hazel MacIntyre, Zuzanna O'Rourke, six year old Lois Arthur (above), Wendy Sinclair, Emma Harmer and Rona Arthur. Photo: Shetnews/Neil Riddell

FUNDRAISING to help men, women and children who have fled from Syria and other troublespots continues to gather pace, with various collection points throughout the islands deluged with donations of supplies. 

The effort, through the Shetland Solidarity with Refugees group, has sprung up in unison with similar groups throughout the country – so many people having been shocked by the tragic image of three year old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, who drowned trying to reach Greece last week.

More than half of Syria’s 22 million population have been forced to leave their homes since the conflict began in March 2011. It is estimated more than 4 million have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries, and increasing numbers are attempting to reach Europe.

A steady stream of donations over the weekend in Shetland resulted in the group putting together a network of drop-off points for clothing, shoes, food, toiletries, tents, mats and blankets.

Wendy Sinclair, who was appointed as Shetland Solidarity with Refugees group spokeswoman at a swiftly convened meeting on Monday, said it had been “nonstop” fielding enquiries from folk keen to help out over the past few days.

She is heartened by the positivity of the volunteers and their eagerness to help, describing the group – initiated by her friend Tina Grant – as “an accumulation of people with the right kind of spirit”.

The reason she decided to get involved is quite simple. “Everybody is a human. If you just look at it that way, think of it if it was your family, if it was a person that you loved who was going through something like that. Nobody chooses to be in this situation.”

Wendy Sinclair: "“Everybody is a human. If you just look at it that way, think of it if it was your family, if it was a person that you loved who was going through something like that. Nobody chooses to be in this situation.”

The initial focus is on collection supplies to be sent to the existing refugee camp in Calais, hopefully at the start of October.

A central collection point in Lerwick has been acquired, but is not being publicised because the group is keen for people to keep donating at drop-offs throughout Shetland before it is gathered, bundled and shipped away.

NorthLink has offered to take freight down to Aberdeen free of charge, Wendy said, which was a “big bonus”, while Shetland Transport has also been “very generous” in offering its help.

Shetland’s donations will be taken to one of Scotland’s main drop-off points, probably Aberdeen or Edinburgh, and then transferred onto the northern French port.

“They’ve been very strong in their message that they don’t want people going to Calais off their own backs,” Sinclair said. “They’ve got enough volunteers – even holidaymakers who are taking their holidays to help people.”

She has been taken aback by the volume of donations. The storage area at the back of the Nimble Fingers shop in Bolt’s, for example, is packed with bags and boxes of jeans, cutlery, sleeping bags and blankets – “the things that are on the list were covered in that small storage area alone”.

Brae School is the latest drop-off point to be added to the list, with the school also planning its own fundraising effort.

While there have been “a few” critical comments of the fundraising effort, she says it has been “neither here nor there” and she feels the community is overwhelmingly behind what the group is tryng to do.

“It seems that with every generation there’s more and more positivity – the negativity is definitely down,” she said.

Volunteers sifting through bags and boxes bound for the Calais refugee camp.

She is unsure what else may result from the effort, with many in Shetland indicating a willingness to house refugees if the UK agrees to accommodate greater numbers of those fleeing war and persecution.

Prime Minister David Cameron partially bowed to strong public pressure to accept more refugees by saying on Monday that Britain would take in “up to 20,000” Syrians from established refugee camps by 2020.

But many critics say taking only 4,000 a year is still nowhere near enough – a fraction of the hundreds of thousands a year Germany is expecting to cater for.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has criticised Cameron for failing to “catch up with public opinion” and called for a cross-party summit to tackle the crisis.

Sinclair said she would support refugees being accommodated in Shetland, though whether that happens will depend on policy decisions at a national level.

SIC leader Gary Robinson has said the council would work with other government agencies and would do “all we can” to support the task force set up by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

“I personally would like to see it,” she said. “I’m not sure what’ll happen with the council – I think that’s something they’ll need to discuss themselves. I know Scotland, certainly, is looking into it – so the ball’s going to be left with the Scottish Government.”

An hour-long silent vigil will be held at the Market Cross at noon this Saturday, with further details available here.

“If Saturday is something people feel they wish to support, please come along,” Wendy added. “It’d be nice to see you. Everybody is welcome.”