In June this year we published ‘Khaled’s story’ (below) in which Khaled Wakaa told in his own words the story of how he and his family had fled from the war in Syria, and how they had made themselves a new life here in Exeter. Khaled’s story was so well received that we asked other members of the refugee community if they would be willing to tell us their stories. Walaa wrote her story below in English and we have not changed any of it, except to remove the names of her husband and family, which Walaa asked us to do. We would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Walaa for sharing her story with us.
A family of four sitting in the airport in Lebanon. Looking at each other wondering what is going to happen. Six suitcases. A grandmother crying. A girl of four crying and a baby asleep. Waiting for an aeroplane. 11p.m., stretching to 4 in the morning. A man approaches, ‘It’s time to get on the plane.’ More tears. Goodbyes to Grandmother. Eventually the family board the plane. It’s time to leave.
“Hello, my name is Walaa and I’m a refugee from Syria.
I arrived in Britain, with my husband and my two daughters, on the 28 September 2016.
I’m going to tell you my story.
We had a simple and beautiful life. It was a life full of love and peace, away from all wars, away from all fears. We owned a lovely house in the middle of Aleppo which we had bought a few months earlier. We chose lots of individual fittings for our large kitchen.
I had dreamed of my future, this wonderful life and my work as a teacher.
But one day a dreadful nightmare came and that was the war in which all the souls, children, women, elderly people, even the animals were taken in my dream.
There was a telephone call. My husband had been arrested and I did not know anything about him for many months. He had been working in the library. I don’t want to talk about the politics because one day I would love to visit my beautiful home country again.
How can a woman in her twenties bear such responsibility as she plays the role of mother and father at one time and in such difficult circumstances?
After my husband’s arrest, I decided to leave and take my daughter to my family home in Idlib, a city in the north of Syria.
A few days later, the bombing started. We’d heard the bombs for nine days. Then our house was hit. My family and I were in our house at the time. There was glass and rubble everywhere. My sister, who was two years younger than me, was killed. I saw the remains of children on the pavement. There was fire everywhere. I saw bodies, I saw a boy carrying the body of his sister whose stomach was missing. I don’t want to describe any more of this.
I decided to go to Lebanon with my mother, father and me and my brothers. I was the oldest of them.
I left behind my lost husband and my memories of my sister who I’d lost and the house of my childhood that was being destroyed and all my friends who I didn’t know anything about. Through all this journey, I was aiming at one thing and that is protecting my family and myself, to provide the simplest means of living, work and housing.
Then I started a life and career in Lebanon. I encountered many difficulties there as a refugee. Life was difficult and there is no special treatment as in other countries. I worried about healthcare. It was so expensive. My daughter had an accident and went to hospital. I didn’t have any health insurance. I had trouble working because I was thinking about my husband because I’d heard nothing about him. All my thoughts were about my little girl. My first job was with a charity that supports women and children. Then I worked in a primary school with refugee children. In the evenings I worked at home with women and children refugees.
And then months later, God rewarded me with my husband’s return.
We went to the United Nations in Lebanon and asked if there was any way out of Lebanon. They told us “You have to wait.” So, we waited and waited for four years, struggling to live.
Then my husband’s phone rang and they said to him, “We are from the United Nations. You have a meeting about travelling.” He didn’t believe it and his eyes filled with tears.
After several interviews, it was decided we were going to Australia. Two months later we were contacted again, and Australia didn’t agree. Our file was transferred to Britain. Three months later, it was fixed. We were going to Britain.
At that time, I had an internal conflict. Thinking about the future of my children or staying with my family who I had never left before.
The most frightening about it all was that I didn’t know anything about Britain. Different culture, different people, different languages. But my whole hope was to find safety and provide a good future for my children.
On the flight to Bristol, I could see my new country. Wonderful nature and rivers, lovely views. And so, I arrived at the place where I was to live. I was tired and tired of all the travelling. I wanted to sleep for hours. I was worried. I didn’t know how Britain was.
I didn’t have any friends. It was very difficult for me in a strange country.
But the biggest problem was the language. It was a very large barrier. I remember once I went to the bus with my little daughter and I was afraid of someone talking to me because I wouldn’t understand. My eldest daughter, when she started school, was crying a lot. I asked her, “Why are you crying?” She said to me, “Because I don’t understand anything. It’s another language.” My youngest daughter cried a lot. Now she is much happier, goes to Nursery and is getting more sociable.
In the beginning I studied at Exeter College. They taught me about daily life in Britain and then offered me a place at the Globe Language School who were very kind to us.
In two or three months my daughter spoke fluent English and she was helping me to understand the language. I am so proud of her. The teachers have treated her so well. When I went to Parents’ Evening they said, “She is brilliant. She has done so well in such a short time.”
I started to work as a volunteer teaching assistant in a primary school. And then I applied for the job. I was very nervous when I went for the interview because all the others had worked in schools before. I was successful. Now I am a teaching assistant for two mornings a week.
I want to study here, and I have been accepted by Exeter University. I am still working hard to learn English. My husband has started a Masters in Middle East and Islamic studies at Exeter University.
I have some very good friends now. They are respectful of me as a Muslim woman.
I am happy that I can still worship at the Mosque.
I was concerned that it would be difficult for me as a Muslim woman to wear a hijab in Europe. I thought people wouldn’t understand it. But now I see it as a great chance to explain to them what it means to me. It is part of my religion. It gives me freedom and independence. It shows everyone my religion and I am very proud of it. I am not shy about wearing the hijab. It gives me confidence.
I was surprised to see that people in Britain are always smiling. It makes me happy to be here. I am pleased to say that I have experienced no racism or prejudice here. I am very happy with the way people see me at school. And I really appreciate the way my own children are treated equally at school.
Another thing that surprised me was the way in which people organise themselves. This is unusual in my country. People don’t queue, and it is chaos at the bus stops. I think that if you can organise each other without anyone guiding you that means you can build a strong and successful society.
I have noticed a huge difference between schools in Britain and in Syria. What impresses me is how British schools use play to teach children. My daughter is much happier at school than I was at school in Syria.
So, I am very happy with my new life in Britain. But I really miss all my family, especially my mother and father. I miss the little things we used to do together. My mum waking me in the morning with coffee, chatting together after work. I miss my house in Idlib. I miss drinking coffee and laughing with our neighbours and having a special breakfast. I miss Friday’s special lunch with the family.
But the most important thing of all is…my children are safe here.
Refugee Support Devon Family Celebration Welcomes All
During Saturday 11th August 2018, families supported by Refugee Support Devon (RSD) attended a summer celebration in Belmont Park, Exeter. Held between 12pm-5pm, the afternoon began with a wonderful selection of music. Firstly, we heard a brilliant solo cello performance from the talented Alina Reim, followed by music and singing from Ami Lee, a DDE (Devon Development Education) Culture Champion.
Soon after, Jenny Longford, our chair on the Board of Trustees, provided a welcoming speech for all attendees, introducing the day’s events, explaining a little about RSD’s mission and summarising some of this year’s achievements. Following Jenny’s introduction, we heard two inspiring speeches from our RSD clients, Yossef Taljebini and Jamila Al Matar, on their experiences as refugees and the struggles they overcame arriving in the UK. Jamila’s speech is reproduced below, with her permission:
“In my name and of the Syrian families I thank you for your generous attendance. Excuse me, I do not speak English very well but try as much as possible to talk to you. It was our trip from Turkey to the UK and we were at Bristol Airport both Annette and Michael. There were many people welcoming us. I did not understand anything and I could not answer them. I had the luck in a person name Cecilia Middleton in the boy’s school. She knew that we were strangers to the country. She helped me to find work for me and my husband. She helped us making new friends, like Andy and his wife Jane, Marie and Jane, and there are more friends. Thank you for the meeting today, and the office of all refugees.
Jamila Al Matar”
Following Yossef and Jamila’s inspiring talks, attendees were honoured to receive a speech from the Lord Mayor of Exeter, Rob Hannaford. In his speech, the Lord Mayor stated his strong support for multiculturalism and his belief that people of different faiths may come together to be a part of the Exeter community as one. He strongly stated that discrimination against someone on the basis of their faith or race had no place in the Exeter community, and that he continues to strive to make Exeter a welcoming city for all refugees and asylum seekers. We are incredibly appreciative of the Lord Mayor’s attendance to our event, and hope to see him again at our events in the future.
Following the Lord Mayor’s attendance speech, it was time to get active with some Bollywood dancing led by Aftar. Soon after, Tameem, one of our resettlement coordinators, led a very exciting game of tug of war!
Later in the afternoon, families enjoyed a Middle Eastern dinner which included a wide selection of traditional foods from across the countries. Families sat and shared their food, talking and enjoying the celebratory environment. The afternoon was rounded off with a very special Spanish musical performance by Eduardo on the guitar.
Thank you to all our families who took the time to attend our community event, and to make the afternoon a memorable and special time. A special thank you goes out to all our staff, volunteers and trustees who pitched in to help set up, serve food, provide child care, and clean up. Without your support events like these would not be possible.
We look forward to hosting another family celebration day in the near future.
Lia Clarke (RSD intern), 23 August 2018
I’ve been volunteering for Refugee Support Devon at the Tuesday afternoon drop-in since September 2017, when I finished paid employment.
From the beginning all the staff have been welcoming and kind. I have been encouraged to become involved from day 1 in problem solving for the visitors to the office, which includes refugees, asylum seekers, and those who have been given the “right to remain”. I have made new friends with the ladies I work with and have gained confidence in helping with things I have had no prior knowledge about, every week brings new challenges! I have put to good use my admin and problem solving skills which I am very happy about (nothing is ever wasted!).
I have become involved with the women’s group, who are very welcoming and our times together are such fun, despite my not speaking Arabic! I have also been involved in taking Syrian refugees to appointments around the city, a great way of connecting on a one-to-one basis.
I am learning a tremendous amount about the plight of refugees & asylum seekers coming to the UK and I have tremendous admiration and respect for the work and employees of Refugee Support Devon.
I would recommend becoming a volunteer with Refugee Support Devon – there are so many areas available to becoming involved with, and skills will be put to very good use.
I saw a post recently which summed up my feelings: “Volunesia – That moment when you forget you’re volunteering to help change lives, because it’s changing yours!”
Sue Hurrell (RSD Volunteer), August 2018
Khaled Wakkaa has been volunteering with many community groups and charities since he arrived in Exeter in 2017. Here, in Khaled’s own words – in both Arabic and English – is his story:
بعد ماتعرضت من جميع اساليب الاضطهاد في سورية في ظل الحرب وبعد ذلك في لبنان بدأت رحلة العذاب بحثا عن لقمة العيش وبعد سنوات قامت منظمات الانسانية والمشروع الدولي لاعادة التوطين (ايراب) المحاميين الذين عملوا على مساعدتي في السفر الى بريطانية حيث استقبلني مكتب مساعدة اللاجئين في ديفون والذي احتضني وعائلتي وقدم يد المساعدة لشق طريقي من جديد حيث بدات بالاندماج في المجتمع الذي اعيش في وسطه واشارك في الاجتماعات التي تقام لصالح المجتمع وانضم الى مجموعة تنشيط المجتمع وتعطي حركة حرة ومجانية في حدائق سانت تومس فري موفمنت حيث اقابل الناس واستمتع بالقيام في التمارين الرياضية ومن ثم اعمل كمتطوع في الحضانة مع الاطفال واعمل متطوع في تقديم الطعام المجاني والقهوه والشاي في شوارع سانت تومس وفي المستقبل القريب اعمل على الانضمام ايضا كمتطوع الى مركز الشرطة في مدينة اكستر ولدي طموح كبير في تطوير نفسي وتقديم كل الافكار والنشاطات التي تحسن من قيام مجتمع متطور ونشيط واتعلم الانكليزية في اكستر كوللج بالاضافة الى المحادثة التي اكسبها عندما اتكلم مع الناس واشارك في احتفاليات ومهرجانات كثيرة في المدينة وضواحية وحيث اعيش هناك الناس الذين يبتسمو في وجهي كل صباح ولم اشعر بانني غريب بينهم على العكس تماما اعطوني دافع ان اشارك اكثر وانخرط واندمج في المجتمع الذي يعاملني دائما بالانسانية واصبح لي الكثير من الاصدقاء من مختلف الجنسيات احب ان اكون صداقات وان اساعد الناس وان اشارك في كل شي وفي كل مكان في مجتمع اعطاني محبة وجعلني احب الناس اكثر واود ان اقدم نصيحة لكل اللاجئين حول العالم ليس فقط في انكلترا ان لا يجلسو في البيوت ويشعرو دائما بالاكتئاب والقلق وهذا سوف يزول عندما يكون الانسان علاقات طيبة مع الناس الذين يعيشو حوله كما فعلت انا تماما …اشكر في المرتبة الاولى مكتب ديفون لمساعدة اللاجئين واشكر المشروع الدولي لمساعدة اللاجئين ايرب الذي قدم لي يد العون للوصول من لبنان الى انكلترا مع عائلتي..ثم اشكر المملكة المتحدة التي كانت هي الحاضنه الاكبر لي ولعائلتي
After being subjected to all the forms of repression and persecution in Syria, during and after the war, I fled, with my family, to Lebanon only to endured further persecution and discrimination. In Lebanon, the journey of suffering began in search for jobs, just to survive.
After five years, humanitarian organizations and the International Resettlement Project (IRAP) and their lawyers helped me to travel to the UK. In the UK my family and I were received by Refugee Support Devon. RSD and its staff and volunteers embraced me and my family and helped me to make my way again and to integrate into the community I live in. I started Joining community groups and attending their events and meetings. I regularly participate in the Free Movement Group activities in St Thomas Park, where I enjoy exercising and meeting people.
I also work as a nursery volunteer with children and work as a volunteer in catering and providing free food, coffee and tea in St Thomas every Sunday. In the near future, I’m aiming to join the local police station in Exeter, as a volunteer. I have a great aspiration to further develop myself and my skills to provide new and creative ideas and activities that encourage communities to develop and be active.
I learn English at Exeter College as well as the conversation that I get when I talk to people and participate in many activities, events and festivals in the city and suburbs and where I live. Here in Exeter, people smile at me every morning in the streets and where I volunteer. I do not and feel I’m a stranger, on the contrary, they gave me the motivation to participate more and get involved. I have many friends from different nationalities, and I would like to make more. I love helping people, participating in everything and everywhere in society that gave me love and made me love people more.
I would like to offer advice to all refugees around the world, not only in England: Do not sit at home and always feel depressed and anxious. Your depression and anxiety will go away when you make the effort to go out, meet people and form positive and healthy relations with people around you, just like what I did. I thank the Refugee Support Devon for supporting and encouraging me, and I thank the International Refugee Aid Project which gave me a helping hand to get from Lebanon to England with my family. I also thank the UK for providing the greatest refuge for me and my family.
Khaled Wakkaa, June 2018