First refugees arrive in tiny Catalan villages under repopulation plan

Orwa Skafe, who fled Syria seven years ago, is among those given jobs and a home in attempt to revive rural areas

It’s been a long journey since Orwa Skafe fled the war in Syria seven years ago but thanks to an innovative resettlement scheme he’s found peace in a tiny village 900 metres (3,000ft) up in the Pyrenees. He is one of the first to benefit from a Catalan government programme to relocate refugees in depopulated villages.

The programme, called Operation 500 because it involves villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants, is being run jointly by the regional employment agency, the equality commission and the Association of Micro-villages.

The scheme, which runs for one year, provides participants with a home and a salary of €19,434 (£16,700) paid via the local authority, which also organises work for them. The programme is open to refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants who are legal residents.

So far, 30 families have been accommodated, 24 of them refugees.

“Up till now the system of dealing with refugees has been very centralised and focused on major cities,” said Oriol López Plana, a facilitator at the Association of Micro-villages, which helps participants integrate, learn the language and become independent.

Tírvia
Tírvia where Orwa Skafe found peace and safety having escaped the war in Syria. Photograph: Orwa Skafe

“The programme aims to integrate people in villages where there’s a social network and then, if they want to move to the city, they can.

“There’s a similar system in France. The difference here is we create a social fabric, we run mentoring and communitarian programmes, in both the work and social spheres.”

Skafe, who comes from the coastal town 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 to legally.

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

He now lives in Tírvia, a remote, mountaintop village of 130 souls close to the border with France, although Skafe says in reality the population is more like 50. He’s employed by the local authority doing maintenance and cleaning.

“I’m very happy here,” he said, freely mixing Spanish and English. “What I want most of all is peace. I like Barcelona but there are too many people. I love nature, which is why I wanted to join this programme.

“I’m learning Catalan, poc a poc [little by little]. Everyone in the village is Catalan. I’m 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. That’s the case for 90%. Of course, there are always people who don’t like strangers.”

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

“I want to stay in the village when the programme ends and I want my family to live here with me. I’m going to work hard to stay here.”

Contributor

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Syrian refugee celebrates ‘sensational’ win in German mayoral race
Ryyan Alshebl, 29, won an absolute majority in Sunday’s mayoral election in Ostelsheim

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

03, Apr, 2023 @12:52 PM

Article image
EU-Turkey deal begins as Syrian refugees arrive in Germany and Finland
Three planes from Turkey, carrying a total of 43 people, land as part of migrant-exchange agreement

Kate Connolly in Berlin

04, Apr, 2016 @2:38 PM

Article image
Tiny graves: Syrian refugees in Lebanon struggle for space to bury children
For Syrians in Lebanon, death brings a final indignity as the bodies of their loved ones are squeezed in along cemetery edges

Kareem Shaheen in the Bekaa Valley

30, Mar, 2017 @12:47 PM

Article image
Syria's neighbours press for help to return refugees
Brussels conference will hear warnings about Syrian regime’s treatment of returnees

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

11, Mar, 2019 @2:09 PM

Article image
Syrian refugees: we were tricked into returning to Turkey
Allegations that young family was deported despite lodging asylum claims in Greece weaken basis for EU-Turkey deal

Patrick Kingsley and Eiad Abdullatif in Istanbul

01, Nov, 2016 @3:17 PM

Article image
First boats returning migrants and refugees from Greece arrive in Turkey
Two boats carrying 131 people from Lesbos and a third carrying 66 from Chios arrive at Turkish port of Dikili

Patrick Kingsley in Dikili, Helena Smith in Mytilene and agencies

04, Apr, 2016 @1:33 PM

Article image
Only 177 Syrian refugees resettled in EU under deal with Turkey
Five member states have taken between five and 55 people each under controversial agreement that is at risk of unravelling

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Patrick Kingsley

18, May, 2016 @3:07 PM

Article image
‘We would rather die than stay there’: the refugees crossing from Morocco to Spain
The number of people travelling across the Strait of Gibraltar has risen sharply, and most who make the journey know the risks

Saeed Kamali Dehghan in Tarifa

23, Aug, 2017 @4:00 AM

Article image
EU takes action against eastern states for refusing to take refugees
Commission moves against Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic, which have not cooperated with relocation agreement

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

13, Jun, 2017 @4:31 PM

Article image
Refugees told 'Europe is closed' as tensions rise at Greece-Turkey border
Teargas fired by both sides amid political standoff over people displaced by war in Syria

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels Helena Smith in Athens and Kate Connolly in Berlin and Bethan McKernan in Istanbul

06, Mar, 2020 @6:05 PM