VOLUNTEERING at The Whitaker in Rawtenstall has helped asylum seeker Muhanad Karzoun to integrate into his new home while he awaits a Home Office decision about his future.

The Palestinian national, was born as a refugee in Syria where his wife and two sons, aged 10 and 12 are currently living with no water, no heating and only basic schooling in an unstable and volatile country with hundreds of militia.

For 18 months, they have kept in touch with daily WhatsApp face-to-face calls, while he waits a decision on his asylum status; the family can’t wait to be reunited in a safe country.

Muhanad, 59, said: “We were living and I had been working in the United Arab Emirates for 26 years, but my airport ground and services contract ended.”

The family fled to Syria, but there were security risks for Muhanad being back in Syria so he booked a flight from Abu Dhabi to Manchester in March last year and claimed asylum as soon as he landed.

He said: “I was treated with the utmost respect. I was feeling scared and I had not

expected to be treated like that.

“I had an EU visa and UK visa because I was often sent to different countries on training courses.

“On arrived in the UK, I was initially sent to a hotel where I stayed for five months and then, in September, I moved to a dispersal house in Haslingden where I still live with four other refugees and asylum seekers and I immediately liked the area; I love nature and people.”

Rather than just sitting and waiting for his next asylum interview, Muhanad went online and sought volunteering opportunities and Rossendale Leisure Trust offered him the chance to help at the leisure suite at the Adrenaline Centre where he cleaned equipment.

The Arabic speaker already understood some English and volunteering meant he got to mix and interact with local people and improve his language skills.

Four months later, he became a volunteer at The Whitaker Art Gallery and Museum in Rawtenstall and he swapped the hectic leisure facility for a calmer environment.

Muhanad said: “I am a walker and I walk to The Whitaker from Haslingden; I try to do 5km each day.

“This is a cosy place for me, because it is a culture and education centre and I am meeting people and interacting with them and the compassionate and dedicated staff. I have found the right place for me.

“I really enjoy meeting the artists and I have a good relationship with the team.”

Muhanad has now been accepted on Adult Learning Courses ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages – maths skills and IT, but will continue to volunteer at The Whitaker when he can.

Volunteer Co-ordinator Caroline Beardmore said: “Muhanad downplays the work he has done at The Whitaker, he has got involved with object handling and had learnt about the history and heritage of the objects we have in the museum and he is a very valued member of our team.

“He is amazing and I get emotional thinking about what he has done for us and for himself. He has not just come here; he has actively integrated himself into our community and he is a champion for other asylum seekers and is so supportive of them.”

Muhanad encourages other asylum seekers and refugees to also take up volunteering opportunities to help them integrate, improve their English, meet new people and improve their skills for the future so they can get into the job market.

Cathrine Smyth Media photo & text.