Leamington Spa is the most welcoming place for refugees. Rima Ayoubi catches up with Welcome Here Group to find out about what they do to make guests feel at home.

People who are forced to flee their countries arrive in the UK with no idea how they will live or what they will face. But then, in Leamington Spa and Warwick, a volunteer group came together and made those people feel “welcome”.

Penny Halpin, Chair of the Welcome Here Group says, “We wanted people to feel welcome here in Leamington Spa because not everybody is welcoming.”

Halpin has been the chair of the group for five years and recently she has handed the position to one of the volunteers, Kate Morrison.

It all started when Halpin heard that Syrian refugees would arrive in Leamington Spa and applied to be volunteer befrienders. She then linked with the first two families who arrived in 2017. Then, the group started from there when all the volunteers got together and formed it to help the families.

“It was important to do things properly, so we set up a committee and opened a bank account for the group.”, Halpin said.

Over the years, more Syrian families arrived. Then, in 2021, Afghan families started to arrive and the group is supporting them as well.

The group works very closely with Warwick County Council resettlement team, the local churches, and Compassionate Kenilworth, who work with asylum seekers. They offer ESOL classes and collect and distribute donated clothes.

The group gave practical support and funding. They offered bicycles to children to be able to get to school and television for each family. Sometimes, parents weren’t able to afford after-school clubs and the group paid for them from their small budget. 

Halpin says, “We are not a big funder but when the Afghans arrived in 2021, there was suddenly a huge need for clothing, toiletries and stuff for babies. We have put a local appeal and people were very generous so we went out and bought a lot of stuff for the families.

We are always careful when contacting the community and putting in any local appeals. This is because of the balance between recognising the privacy of families that we are working with and getting support from the community. The families are entitled to private life.

Therefore, the group doesn’t have a big presence on social media. The families need to fit in with the community and not be seen to be different.”

Welcome Here Group is the only group that works with the refugees in Leamington Spa and Warwick. Six years ago, Warwickshire never had this experience of having refugees but now everything has changed.

The community needs to realise how difficult it is for people to be forced to leave their own homes and be sent across the world. They didn’t know where they were coming to and ended up in the UK. Then, they have to rebuild their lives from scratch.

Halpin adds, “It’s very difficult for us to imagine what it must be like for families who have come to live in this country, not because that’s what they chose to do, but because they have come for reasons of war and conflict.

The difficulty is leaving their homes and leaving families behind and fear for them, for their safety. Besides, the difficulty of settling into a new culture, learning how the system works and speaking a new language. The challenges are multiple!”

The main challenge for refugees is finding jobs. To be able to get a job, they need to have a reasonable level of English. So, the group helps people with their speaking, reading and writing. The volunteers visit the families regularly to give them English lessons.

As Halpin explains, it’s a complicated system for anybody looking for jobs. People bring all kinds of different skills. Language is the first barrier. Then, skills are not always transferable and there is a huge bureaucracy in getting jobs in this country. It’s very different to the environment of getting jobs in their countries.

Of course, This is different for asylum seekers as they are not allowed to work. This makes it even more difficult for them.

Halpin says, “One thing on our agenda is to help refugees with employment, which isn’t available at the moment”.


Picture1 welcome here


The volunteers also face some challenges. For instance, the difference in language is a massive one. They use Google translate and simple hand-signing to be able to communicate. 

Over time, the families learn English and improve their ability to communicate and build friendships. Children adapt more quickly than adults and once they start going to school they become translators. The first family that Halpin helped had a five-year-old boy, Ali. He became a very good English speaker just after a few months in school.


Picture2 welcome here


The families and volunteers become good friends and learn from each other. Tricia Lee, a volunteer with the Welcome Here Group says, “We’ve laughed a lot, cried loads and learnt together some of our cultural differences.”

Mrs Lee is known as “mum” to both a Syrian young mother and an Afghan girl, who is without any family members. Her family couldn't make it to the UK. All the families are happy to meet them and very hospitable. “It’s a huge privilege to be involved”, Lee adds.

After all these years of working with the families, Halpin says, “I do feel how lucky I am. I really do. I’d like to feel that any refugees and asylum seekers who come to Warwickshire and who come to live in this particular area would feel welcomed. Then, we would see their lives little by little improving and they would feel more and more at home. It is important to see other people as different sorts of human beings and honour other people’s beliefs and how enriching it is. I’m the richer for being involved in the Welcome Here Group. It’s one of the best things in my life!”