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First refugees arrive in empty Catalan villages as part of resettlement plan | Syria

IIt’s been a long journey since Orwa Skafe fled war in Syria seven years ago, but thanks to an innovative resettlement program he has found peace in a small village 900 meters above sea level in the Pyrenees.

Skafe is one of the first to benefit from a Catalan government program to relocate refugees to depopulated villages. The program, called Operation 500 because it concerns villages with less than 500 inhabitants, is run jointly by the regional employment agency, the equality commission and the association of micro-villages.

The year-long scheme provides participants with accommodation and a salary of €19,434 (£16,700) paid through the local authority, which also organizes work for them. The program is open to refugees, asylum seekers and legally resident immigrants.

So far, 30 families have been accommodated, including 24 refugees.

“Until now, the refugee processing system has been very centralized and focused on big cities,” said Oriol López Plana, facilitator of the Association of Micro-Villages, which helps participants integrate, learn the language and to become independent.

Tírvia where Orwa Skafe found peace and security after escaping the war in Syria. Photography: Orwa Skafe

“The program aims to integrate people into villages where there is a social network and then, if they want to go to town, they can.

“There is a similar system in France. The difference here is that we create a social fabric, we run mentoring and community programs, in the professional and social spheres.

Skafe, who comes from the coastal city of Latakia where he worked as an English teacher, left Syria in 2015 and went to Haiti because he says it was the only place he could go legally .

“It turned out that Haiti is even more dangerous than Syria,” he said, so he traveled to Spain and arrived in Barcelona in January this year. A month later was granted asylum.

He now lives in Tírvia, a remote mountaintop village of about 130 near the border with France, although Skafe claims the population is actually more like 50. He is employed by the local authorities for maintenance and cleaning.

“I’m very happy here,” he says, freely mixing Spanish and English. “What I want above all is peace. I love Barcelona but there are too many people. I love nature, that’s why I wanted to join this program.

“I’m learning Catalan, pok a pok [little by little]. Everyone in the village is Catalan. I am the only foreigner. I don’t understand much but I’m patient and I’m not afraid to learn new languages.

“People are very welcoming, everyone talks to me, they offer me help or to do my shopping. This is 90% the case. Of course, there are always people who don’t like foreigners.

He hopes that his wife and child, still in Syria, will be able to join him once he obtains a residence permit, but sees no prospect of returning to Syria.

“I want to stay in the village at the end of the program and I want my family to live here with me. I will work hard to stay here.


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