MEMBERS of Oxford’s Syrian community have thanked the city for its warm welcome and finally allowing them ‘to feel at peace’.

Three years after nearly 1,000 people marched through Oxford under a ‘refugees welcome’ platform, some 29 families – around 129 individuals – have been settled in the city through government-funded schemes, joining dozens of other Syrians already living under the dreaming spires.

Now members of the growing community say they are thriving – and want to thank residents for their support.

The Abou Kerech family, who arrived in Oxford in 2016 as part of one of two schemes, praised local residents and organisations following the trauma of leaving their war-torn country.

Eldest daughter Ftoun, 15, said: “Here we start to feel at peace. We feel like this is our home.”

Speaking virtually perfect English - after she and her siblings Amineh, 14, and Mohammad, 12, arrived with none – Ftoun continued: “The people in Oxford, they smile at your face, they say hello, especially the old people – it’s really nice.”

Her father Tammam, 38, added: “I just want to say thank you to all of England: British people, police, schools, the council Asylum Welcome, everyone that helped.

“It’s special, Oxford, we visited many places [in the UK] but it’s just very special here for us.”

Mr Abou Kerech said he was concerned for his family’s safety in Syria and had to regularly move around the country to avoid trouble, before eventually leaving.

He continued: “[In Syria], my house, job, everything is gone - destroyed. I left my car on the street and left quickly.

“[Now] we are very happy, I am happy for my children, they have a good future here.

“Now I am a chef and I hope that in future I can have a small restaurant with Arabic food.”

The family, who were singled out by charity Asylum Welcome as one example of an integration success story, say they can now plan for their future, though they are still looking for help in finding stable, long-term accommodation.

They describe Oxford’s Syrian community, who come together for celebrations like Eid, as ‘like a big family’ and add that they are taken with British traditions – notably Christmas celebrations – and hope to one day meet the Queen.

According to the United Nations, some 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, with the majority now in Turkey.

In Oxford, one notable community organiser, Hadi Nori, helps his countrymen through organising a number of local initiatives, including family fun days, football, driving theory test support and various training courses.

He is hoping to build community feeling with local residents and rebuild relations between Syrians, who he says have been divided by the conflict.

Mr Nori, who left Syria in 2015, said: “I gained a lot of experience and knowledge with many organisations, as a volunteer. I thought it would be good for me to establish something like a Syrian community in Oxford, to help other Syrians to understand the situation here and change the view of other people about Syrians.”

The 38-year-old, who has just started studying at Oxford Brookes, said the schemes for refugees in Oxford were excellent, adding that support in Oxford has been ‘amazing’.

Amineh Abou Kerech, who won a prestigious national poetry prize last year, said: “It feels like our country. When I went to Paris [as part of the prize] and I heard someone speaking English, I felt like it was my first language.”

Along with her two siblings, she has been praised for her progress at Oxford Spires Academy, which has been given credit for helping the children’s settle in.

Amineh continued: “When we had our first day, when I looked at the school I thought ‘oh my gosh, the technology and all that stuff, it’s so easy to learn, easy to get you what you want in future’.

Kate Smart, director of Oxford’s Asylum Welcome charity, added: “The Syrian community are making a valiant effort, helped by the goodwill and practical support of local people. Syrians are also working hard to look after each other - most realise the importance of encouraging mutually supportive ties so that individuals can turn to the community for help and children grow up feeling secure.

“The Syrian refugees who are making Oxford their home have a wealth of talents: they can use these to enrich the lives of the wider Oxford community.

She continued: “Oxford’s response to refugees has been compassionate, respectful and effective. Where refugees have been given legal rights to work, study and access services, they are enriching our community and supporting each other.”

Oxford City Council leader Susan Brown echoed praise of the city’s treatment of refugees, adding: “Oxford has led the way among local authorities in the South East in engaging with the Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SYPRS) and Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme (VCRS) programme and Community Sponsorship.

“Many of the families have complex needs and we have successfully worked with partners - including Asylum Welcome, Connection Support and Refugee Resource - to build expertise and capacity in the provision of support to facilitate the successful integration of families into their local Oxford communities.

“Internal evaluation of the Oxford programme has been positive, [highlighting] the need to further focus on integration and independence, especially helping people to find work.

“We are currently focusing on providing the appropriate support for families in order that they are fully independent and financially self-sufficient after five years when the programme funding ends.”