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Lifestyle

How refugees are enriching our communities from Aberdeen to the Highlands

This is a story to recognise how refugees are enriching our communities and the amazing work that is going on to support them up and down the north and north-east of Scotland. reports.
Rosemary Lowne
Dolapo Elizabeth Ogumbiyi is working towards becoming a social worker after finding a safe haven in Inverness.
Dolapo Elizabeth Ogumbiyi is working towards becoming a social worker after fleeing war torn Ukraine and finding a safe haven in Inverness with her young family. Images: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Meet four refugees who found new starts in life in Scotland, from Aberdeen to the Highlands

Waking up to the sound of a deadly bomb blast, Dolapo Elizabeth Ogumbiyi and her husband Sodiq Akindele didn’t waste a second, fleeing Kyiv with their precious baby boy Arsal and the few belongings they could fit in their car.

“We were sleeping, it was very early in the morning around 4am and we heard this boom,” says Dolapo, 33.

“Trust me that was scary, it was scariest thing I’ve ever encountered in my life.

“We stood up and the first thing my husband said was ‘the war has started’.

“We peeped outside and saw the smoke and fire coming from the northern side of where we were – immediately we started packing up, only taking our documents, the baby’s food and a few of his clothes.”

Just hours after hearing the first bomb blast, the couple had another narrow escape as they tried to leave Kyiv via Irpin, a city about an hour away.

“We decided to try what we thought was a short cut through Irpin,” says Dolapo.

“But we saw the Ukrainian helicopters above and I was taking a video not knowing that they were trying to locate Russian invaders who were hiding in the bush.

“In the blink of an eye we heard a boom right in front of our car.

“A bomb had gone off just in front of us, it was so close that one of the cars beside us turned over, it was terrifying.

“So we turned back round and headed back to the traffic jam in Kyiv.”

It was the start of a dangerous and arduous journey for the young family who had moved from Nigeria to Ukraine in the hope of a better life.

Dolapo Ogumbiyi and her family say the welcome they have received in Scotland has been heart-warming.

‘Scotland is blissful’ says refugee Dolapo

From Ukraine, the family travelled to Poland, Estonia and eventually got safe passage to Scotland in June last year where they now live peacefully in Smithton, Inverness.

“Ever since I stepped my foot into Scotland it has been blissful,” says Dolapo.

Dolapo and her family are among thousands of refugees who have found a safe haven in Scotland.

This is a story to recognise how refugees are enriching our communities and the amazing work that is going on to support them up and down the north and north-east of Scotland.

Dolapo and her family say the support they have received from the community in Aviemore, where they initially stayed, and in Inverness, has been second to none.

One person Dolapo will never forget is Helen MacRae, who set up the charity Highlands for Ukraine to support refugees.

“Helen is the sweetest soul ever – I love her,” says Dolapo.

“Since we arrived she has brought us everything we needed, she has been truly helpful.”

Dolapo Ogumbiyi says the charity Highlands for Ukraine has been a godsend from the moment she and her family arrived in the Highlands.

Helen and her charity were there to help Dolapo when she gave birth to her second son Rayan in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness last year.

“Helen got me bottles, nappies, a baby bath and clothes,” says Dolapo.

“It made a big difference as my husband had just started working and we haven’t saved enough money yet.”

Happier and more settled than ever since moving to Inverness, Dolapo has applied to study social work at the University of the Highlands and Islands while her husband works as a receptionist at the Macdonald Resort in Aviemore.

“Ever since I left Nigeria I haven’t experienced the kind of love I’ve felt here in Scotland,” says Dolapo.

Anastasiia Kvasha

Anastasiia Kvasha, left, and her sister-in-law Alina have found safety and solace in Insh near Kingussie. Image: Anastasiia Kvasha

Speaking to the Press and Journal from Kyiv, the day after a Russian rocket hit an apartment building in Lviv, western Ukraine, killing at least 10 people, Anastasiia Kvasha sees no end to the war.

“Lots of people say the war will be over at the end of this year and everything will be fine but it feels like there will always be war,” says the 35-year-old.

“If the war will be going on for another year or two Ukraine will be destroyed.”

When the war began, Anastasiia was heartbroken to say goodbye to her parents who remained in Kyiv, and her young brother, who is currently part of the Ukrainian Army fighting in the Donetsk region.

For the past 16 months, Anastasiia has found safety and solace in Insh, a village near Kingussie, thanks to Willie Anderson, a retired teacher and his wife Mary, a retired doctor, who have given her the use of their spare cottage.

“Willie and Mary are like my family now,” says Anastasiia.

“In Scotland I’m very happy.”

Shocked by the harrowing images coming from wartorn Ukraine, Willie says he and his wife were determined to help.

“We were looking at these images and it was horrific,” says Willie.

“We were just sitting there and wondered if we could give our cottage, just 100 yards away from our house, to a couple of Ukrainians for a while to give them some respite and somewhere safe to regroup and get their heads round what was happening to them.”

Pictured from left are Alina, Willie Anderson, Anastasiia Kvasha and Mary Anderson at a ceilidh in Kincraig. Image: Willie Anderson

Willie and Mary together with stellar support from their tight knit community have rallied round to support Anastasiia and her sister-in-law Alina, who has also moved over.

Grateful for the support, Anastasiia, who worked as an HR manager at a hotel in Kyiv before the war, says it has helped her to settle in.

Ceilidhs, hillwalking, and embracing other Scottish traditions

“Within five days of arriving I was able to start work, so now I work in the local pub and at a posh hotel too,” she says.

“As well as helping me to find a job, Willie has also taken us hillwalking and gliding, but my favourite was the ceilidh.

“I love ceilidhs, I love all the traditions in Scotland.”

Pictured back right is Anastasiia Kvasha, next to Willie Anderson and friends hillwalking. Image: Anastasiia Kvasha

This month Anastasiia travelled home to visit her family and says she was surprised at what she found in Kyiv.

“It was a surprise for me as everything is like usual, there’s lots of cafes open, lots of parks, people with children are walking around,” says Anastasiia.

“It’s like normal life but in the evening it’s not very good.

“Two days ago, during the night, I heard this siren telling us to go underground.”

Right now the future is not certain for Anastasiia but she is just thankful for people like Willie and Mary who have restored her faith in humanity.

“They are like my parents,” says Anastasiia.

Omar Al Hmdan, a refugee who found a welcome in Aberdeen

Omar Al Hmdan, who now lives in Aberdeen, has used his experience of being a Syrian refugee to help other refugees. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

When his aunt and uncle died in a devastating bomb strike on their home, Omar Al Hmdan knew it was time to get his family out of Syria before it was too late.

Cradling his two-month old son Masaab in his arms, Omar and his wife Manar left their home in Daraa, the birthplace of Syria’s uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody regime.

Fleeing to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, Omar said his family didn’t find true peace until they were allowed to seek refuge in Aberdeen.

“You can’t imagine how I was feeling when we arrived in Aberdeen as I love the UK,” says Omar.

“I’ll never forget the moment when we arrived as I couldn’t speak English that well but I felt their smiles.

“We had lost our smiles so to see people smiling was amazing and it made us smile.

“We felt safe and I asked my wife Manar, are we dreaming?”

Since stepping foot off the plane, Omar and his family have immersed themselves into the local community.

How Omar is giving back to the country that took him in

Not only is Omar helping Syrian refugees gain skills for work through his As-Salaam project, he has also given back to the community, cooking meals for NHS workers during lockdown, and also the homeless.

Omar was also recently involved in You, Me and a Cup of Tea, an event held in partnership by Refugee Festival Scotland and the Aberdeen Interfaith Group at St Andrew’s Cathedral.

Omar and his family are walking towards a bright future after finding a safe haven in Aberdeen. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Omar, who recently became a British citizen, also works as an Arabic teacher at Aberdeen Mosque and Islamic Centre in Frederick Street.

One of the friendly faces he has encountered during his time in Aberdeen is none other than King Charles who met refugees at a reception at the city’s Town House last year.

“It was amazing, I can’t explain it,” says Omar.

“He asked me where I was from and when I said Syria, he said it’s a difficult situation and I said I hoped that one day it would finish.

“I was astonished when he spoke Arabic, he said inshallah which means god willing.”

Hajar Al Hmdan

Hajar Al Hmdan works as a healthcare assistant at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and dreams of becoming a nurse. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Proudly standing outside Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in her distinctive blue NHS uniform, mum-of-three Hajar Al Hmdan is happier than ever.

Like her brother Omar, Hajar fled Daraa in Syria and is now living happily in Aberdeen.

Forced to give up her dreams of becoming a nurse due the bloody war in Syria, Hajar now works as a healthcare assistant at ARI.

“I like working at the hospital because my dream is to be a nurse,” says Hajar, 38.

“I remember when I was a child I was the one who was always looking after people.

“I was studying nursing at Robert Gordon University but my daughter was too young so I’m going to return to university when she starts high school.”

Mum-of-three Hajar says Aberdeen feels like home. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Hajar says the warm welcome they have received in the city has also helped her children, Mohammad, 16, Bilal, 15, and Shahad, 11, feel at home.

“My children now feel their home is in Aberdeen,” says Hajar.

“My son Mohammad has autism but he’s doing much better and he’s got support from the school and now he can read and write.”

Hajar’s husband Abdulfatah has also found work as a gardener.

“My husband has also done a lot of volunteering and was employed by Aberdeen City Council as a gardener,” says Hajar.

Hope for the future of refugees in Aberdeen and beyond

By opening their arms and offering a warm and welcoming embrace, communities across the north and north-east are not only providing refugees support and somewhere safe to live but perhaps something even more precious, hope for a better future.

“All I can say is God bless Scotland,” says Dolapo.