IN HAMA, Syria, their home until the war forced them to flee, Seham and Ghassan Makdesi did not spend their days serving queues of people hungry for kebabs. He was a driver, and she worked in a sweet shop.
But, earlier this month, they had a steady supply of customers at the launch of Falafels and More, a stall at Bury Market — a place not so different from the markets back home, Mrs Makdesi said. Opened with the help of Christians in the area, the business is a long-term dream of the couple, who were granted asylum three years ago.
“Every time we walked through the market, my husband would look at the same unit and say he wanted a small store like that,” Mrs Makdesi told the Bury Times this month. “We ended up getting that exact one. I think it is a gift from Jesus. It is our dream to open an Arabic food shop.”
They have no family here — some are still in Syria, some in Lebanon — and getting asylum was “difficult: a long story,” Mrs Makdesi said at the opening of the stall on 10 November. Unlike Syrians resettled through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme or community sponsorship, they arrived without help from others, and found that they were the only Christian Syrians in Bury, to their knowledge. Their daughter, Katrina, attends Bury Church of England High School, and is already speaking English confidently.
They are part of a core group, headed by the Manchester Mothers’ Union and supported by Bury Council, that is preparing to welcome a sponsored family that has spent years in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
People in Bury have been “very nice”, Mrs Makdesi said, at the opening of the stall on 10 November. They attended an Orthodox church in Syria, but now join a 70-strong Arabic-speaking congregation at an Evangelical church in Manchester. A GP, originally from Egypt, told me that they worshipped alongside people from Iraq, Saudia Arabia, and Morocco, and that a shared culture included “hospitality: the talking, the meeting. We do not like to be independently separated. . . We just seize the opportunity to put on an event so that people can meet.”
The opening of the stall was attended by, among others, the Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Revd Mark Ashcroft; an assistant curate of St Mary’s, Bury, the Revd Rhiannon Jones (who was speaking in Arabic); and the refugee co-ordinator for the Church of England, Nadine Daniel. A friend of the family and member of the core group, Heidi Reiss, was busy persuading passers-by to help to complete a mosaic sign to put up at the stall.
Ms Daniel said that she was keen to ensure that successes such as the launch of the stall were repeated in the Church, in which work was already under way to teach refugees English, and to help them find employment opportunities.
“It is not that people do not have skills: it is having those skills accredited and accepted in this country,” she said.