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The small Scottish island where Syrian refugees found peace

Once a flourishing vacation destination, the population of Scotland's Isle of Bute has shrunk and its economy withered. But the arrival of 24 Syrian families is contributing to an atmosphere of regeneration. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on how they’re faring.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since Syria's civil war began, the U.N. says that 12 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, with another 1.5 million expected to leave this year.

    The recent bombardment of Eastern Ghouta highlights the need for new sanctuaries.

    As Malcolm Brabant reports, this is being watched with concern on a Scottish island, where a small Syrian community has been warmly welcomed.

    And a warning, You may find some images in this story disturbing.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    A short ferry ride from Scotland's west coast lies the Isle of Bute. Once a flourishing vacation destination for workers from Glasgow, the island's population has shrunk and its economy has withered, but the arrival of 24 Syrian families is contributing to an atmosphere of regeneration.

    Mounzer Al Darsani used to have a barber shop in Damascus, and has become the first Syrian to set up his own business on the island. Others, including a bakery, are in the pipeline.

  • Mounzer Al Darsani:

    The people here are very, very nice, and very helpful. They give us a big help when we came, and still help us for everything.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Al Darsani's client base is growing, thanks to recommendations from customers like police officer Andrew Wilson, who approves the decision to give the Syrians sanctuary.

  • Andrew Wilson:

    I think it's a very positive thing for the island. The island itself is predominantly an elderly community, so it's always good to get fresh kind of blood to the island. And Mounzer here, I have been coming here since he came. He's really good at his job as well.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Al Darsani is proud that his work ethic is recognized in Bute, but, speaking in his native Arabic, expresses sadness that the island's hospitality has not been replicated elsewhere in Europe.

  • Mounzer Al Darsani:

    Unfortunately, the European governments think the Syrians are going to come, and there will be an Islamic takeover. We never thought about this. We never thought about this.

    Actually, we are running from ISIS. We are running from these groups to find safety, and so that we and our children can live in safety.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Just around the corner, a former builder from Damascus is repaying what he sees as his debt to Bute by volunteering in Angela Callaghan's charity shop. Ahmad asked us not to reveal his identity, because he fears retribution against family members still in Syria.

  • Ahmad:

    I am happy. I am very happy, me and every family.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Ahmad is taking English lessons, but the language is proving difficult.

  • Ahmad:

    Here, there is no war and no airstrikes. But, in Syria, we ran from the war and airstrikes. The children are very happy. Our family is very happy here. There are no problems at all. We ran from the problems and from Bashar al-Assad.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The latest images from Eastern Ghouta underpin Ahmad's sense of gratitude.

  • Ahmad:

    We watch the news a lot. Our heart is broken for our people in Syria from the airstrikes and the war. A lot of sad images. Me and my children and my wife have decided to stay in Scotland. We will not return to Syria.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Angela Callaghan was instrumental in making the Syrians welcome. After surviving breast cancer, she devoted her life to charity. Any profits from her secondhand shop fund a food bank that serves the poorest islanders.

  • Angela Callaghan:

    I see television, the same as anybody else. I see the news at night. I go to my friends' houses. I listen to their stories, which mostly are horrifying, and I just couldn't even imagine being there myself.

    And I just think, in coming to a place like this, where it's tranquil, stunning, people are nice, and that feeling of no fear leaves them, within a space of maybe a few weeks, you can see it in their faces, in their eyes.

    A lot of them are putting down roots, and I would actually say just about all of them. They have settled down fantastic. They have all got friends, got people who come to their houses for a wee cup of tea, like I do quite often.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Most Syrians were unwilling to talk because of fear that their families might be targeted. Craft brewer Aidan Canavan is highly protective of the newcomers.

  • Aidan Canavan:

    The problems came from the people of Bute who had perceptions that they wouldn't be able to celebrate Christmas, they wouldn't be able to eat bacon at school.

    All these rumors went around. None of them were true. It was just fabricated stories that went around.

  • Rev. Peter Atkins:

    We live in a time of different cultures.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Peter Atkins is a Baptist minister. He believes Bute offers opportunities for the Syrians, but worries that, like other islanders, they may struggle to find employment. With his Jamaican heritage, Atkins understands the complexities of integration.

  • Rev. Peter Atkins:

    Whatever you do, it takes time. The Syrians are learning English. They're chatty. You speak to them in the street, and all the signs are good. But, at the same time, its a different situation from my grandparents, for example, because they're refugees. They didn't intend to come here.

    This wasn't a life plan. This wasn't intentional. And should the Syrian situation become more positive in five or 10 years, we would expect that they would leave. So it's difficult to settle and make integration plans with that context, although Syria's not really giving us much cause for hope on that front.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The goodwill towards refugees on this island is unmistakable, but three years into the migration crisis, the European Union remains deeply divided. Former communist countries are resolutely refusing to take in any refugees.

    E.U. leaders are being asked to thrash out a common policy to handle future influxes, so that the burden is shared fairly. But the split is so profound that some experts believe there will not be any agreement.

    While he consolidates his business, Al Darsani's heart and mind is never far from Syria.

  • Mounzer Al Darsani:

    For now, I am here. I am living my life normally and in safety. But I can't avoid the distressing scenes on television, the helpless situation of the Syrian people, and the international community's complicity. Tragically, all humanity is lost.

    I simply ask the international community and anyone to think, if someone like this happened to you, would you accept it?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    There's nothing the people of Bute can do to bring peace to Syria, but, individually, they are furthering the cause of human understanding.

  • Woman:

    Because they're part of my family, and I'm part of their family, and they know that, because he calls me his sister, and he's my brother. And he's my brother.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Woman:

    Here's my brother.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Life is complex for the Syrians, but it must go on. Syrian children are being born here, in peace, and, as always, imbued with their parents' hope that their future will be better.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant on the Isle of Bute.

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