Two experienced builders from Syria are helping to refurbish Shaftesbury’s Oasis Pool as volunteers because they want to ‘give something back’ to our community.
The brothers made Shaftesbury their home after fleeing their home country. Social enterprise company, Build Love, has offered the men work placement on the project so they can gain an understanding of the British building industry and learn English construction terms. ThisIsAlfred found out more.
Brothers Artef and Ammar settled in Shaftesbury around 13 months ago after they were forced to flee Syria with their families as refugees. They’ve been through a lot. Shaftesbury’s MP Simon Hoare met the men before Christmas and in January told the House of Commons that pictures of conditions in Syria that the men had shown him were ‘horrible’.
The brothers were busy stripping paint off a windowsill at Oasis Pool when ThisIsAlfred spoke with them on Thursday. They were keen to thank locals for the warm welcome they had received. “We like Shaftesbury because people are very, very kind,” said Artef.
“Shaftesbury, in particular, has been great, great, great support,” added Hamza Bakkor. He is an officer within Dorset Council’s resettlement team. Hamza is from Syria as well and he’s been helping the families adjust to life here. “Usually when a family arrives, for the first year the focus mainly is learning the language. Most of the families come with very limited English or no English at all,” Hamza said, adding that Artef and Ammar’s families couldn’t speak English when they arrived.
“These people coming from overseas are keen to do something, to add something, to give something, just the way they’ve been given something,” Hamza said. “They’ve been overwhelmed with the kindness and the support they received from the volunteers and from the whole town basically, and they want to give something back,” explained Hamza from his Dorchester office. “At the same time, they want to develop their English and they hope to find jobs because that would help them financially, of course, in the future, especially with their big families.”
“I worked in building and plastering for 24 or 25 years,” said Artef, as he downed tools for a moment to chat at the side of the pool. He explained that he had lived in the Syrian capital Damascus. As we chatted, Artef said that he was unsure whether UK building practices differ greatly to those he learned in Syria. “I don’t work here in building. I want to see. But now I don’t know,” he said.
“Which one of you is the better builder?” I asked the brothers. “My brother, because he is a little bigger than me,” said Ammar. We joked that he would have to say that, as he is the younger sibling.
Both men worked on major construction projects in Damascus. Ammar told me that he worked on Lebanese building schemes, too. “We have built a restaurant,” said Artef. Building skills are in the family. The brothers’ father had a career in construction. “He worked as a plasterer and a builder,” said Ammar.
The men have found that not fully understanding English yet has been a barrier to getting work. They are hopeful that when they develop further English skills, they will be able to put their extensive experience to good use. “I learn English now. When I have good language, I think it (will be) easy, because for twenty years I worked as a builder and plasterer and I have seen everything in building,” said Artef.
“We have two days every week in college,” said Artef. The men are learning English there. Their youngsters are picking it up from school and friends, as kids do. “My children have good English,” he added.
The men speak two languages fluently already. When they converse with Hamza, it is in Arabic but they are also proud to be able to speak what was thought to have been Christ’s language. “We speak Aramaic. This language is very, very old, maybe 3,500 years old. This is the language for Jesus,” Artef said.
Hamza says that being unable to work since arriving in Shaftesbury has been culturally difficult for the men. “Men in Syria are the providers. In a lot of families, the man always goes out and puts food on the table. It is something really very important. And it does affect a lot of things if they don’t. So everyone has to work, basically,” Hamza said.
“Not working for them is really hard,” Hamza continued. “They’re used to working all of their lives and suddenly they came here and they can’t do anything. So working will improve the quality of their life.”
The Oasis Pool works contract has been awarded to the not-for-profit social enterprise, Build Love, run by Nikki Dodds. Nikki recently oversaw the completion of the refurbishment of the Bell Street toilets for the Town Council. Build Love will offer work placement for the Syrian brothers and training for some of the Guy’s Marsh prisoners who will be released soon. There is also a project planned for inmates who are not cleared to leave the prison site.
“The heart of Build Love is kindness,” said Nikki. “It’s about inclusion as well. It’s getting people involved and promoting the benefits of practical, hands-on work and the sense of achievement that comes with it.”
Nikki believes that the placement will help Artef and Ammar. “I think it’s an opportunity for them to get a confidence boost by being on a site like this and brushing up on their English as well. They will be learning the names and words for things and getting an opportunity for them to showcase their skills. Hopefully, this will give them something for their CVs and a reference from me as well.”
Over the next fortnight, two prisoner volunteers should be joining the team on site. “We’ve got one man on ‘ROTL’, which is ‘Release On Temporary Licence’ from Guys Marsh. We should be having another man joining us again in the next week or two. So there will be seven of us in total,” said Nikki.
As the men are volunteering their time in order to gain experience, the Town Council’s project costs are kept low. “It’s a bit of a win-win. Ammar and Artef are saving the Council money by lending their labour, as are the men on release from Guys Marsh,” said Nikki.
Nikki says the open-air pool’s appearance will be enhanced by the work, ready for the start of the season. “We’ve worked with Shaftesbury Town Council to get together a colour palette which more accurately represents the brand of the pool, which is called Oasis. So expect to see some fairly tropical colours. We’re repainting throughout and we’re going to be tidying. We’re going restain the entire wooden canopy as well. There’s quite a bit of work to do. The impact is going to be great,” she said.
The plan also includes better signage so people don’t walk past the pool unaware that it is there. “The lovely gates that say ‘Swim Pool’ are fab but when they’re open you can’t really see what it says. We’re hoping to use some of the walls for some plants and we will put up a bigger ‘welcome’ sign as you turn the corner. It will be a little bit more clear and a bit more inviting for the people passing by.”
The plants Nikki mentioned will be contained in highly decorated holders and their creation will form part of a prison arts project. “We’ve got a course that’s run by Weston College in Guys Marsh, working with about 18 men to create some mosaic flowerpots for us. We have asked that it is relatively colourful and ‘in keeping’ with the theme. What they come up with is kind of at their discretion, so that will be really exciting to see,” she said.
Nikki hopes to gain more contracts where she can offer lower cost building work and, at the same time, help her volunteers develop life skills that could literally change their fortunes by enhancing their employment prospects. She’s had so much interest, she told me, that she is relocating to Shaftesbury from Wells. Nikki hopes to be able to offer solutions for private homeowners and businesses as well as Council schemes, too.
“It’s not always going to be possible to get (the prisoners) out on temporary release due to the turnaround of projects. But the whole point is that we’re keeping busy and the proceeds of what we’re doing are going back to supporting a workshop that we run at Guys Marsh,” said Nikki.