About Refugees, By Refugees
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“My dream was just like any other young man: finish my studies, work in media, have my own company,” says Abdulhamid Aldarany (pseud, 37). When war made him flee his birth country of Syria, he lived in Lebanon before coming to the UK with his family. “When I arrived here, the most overwhelming feeling was loss,” he says. Not speaking English, he was afraid of people and going out. He cannot forget the atrocities he witnessed. “When I watch the news… I feel like I still live there, the life of war,” he says. “What I saw in Syria made me cry air instead of tears. I mean, I can’t even cry and let it out.” Abdulhamid coped by studying and reading: “I kept myself busy to try to forget the past and move on.” He made friends, started work and learned English. Now he dreams of starting a business to provide for his family and of returning to Syria: “I will be old, I will be walking with a crutch, but I will return to my country, this is my distant dream. To rebuild what the war has destroyed.”
Trigger Warning: Death, Violence/murder
Well, first let’s talk a little more, you live at home.
Is this an audio recording or a camera?
I will not use the camera. Only a part of the recording will be used anyway.
Tell us about the house you live in, who do you live with? How are the conditions of the house? Is it from the government? Or how did you get it?
I live here with my family of three children, one son and two daughters in addition to my wife. The house is from the municipality. We came here through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR).
Okay. How do you spend your time? Do you work? How do you spend your whole day?
I arrived to the UK in 2017. From 2017 until 2019 (for almost two years), I used to spend around five days a week studying English in college because I didn’t know the language. I studied it until my English became strong, then I got my driving license, I trained and then got it, and then I went to work partially, for 16 hours per week. Of course, as you know, It is mandatory to learn the language. Without the language, we can’t work here at all.
Okay. As I mentioned earlier, we try to focus our questions on the topic of emotions and things like that. How do you spend your free time here in the UK?
On normal days when I was learning English, my wife and I used to spend our mornings in college, and after that we would go to the sea. The sea was very close to us, there were many beautiful views. So, we would go there to entertain ourselves. We also have many English friends. We used to communicate with them in order to make new friends, as well as to improve our English language. Until the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, we stayed at home. There are many very beautiful tourist areas around us to spend our time in, in addition to swimming pools and the gym.
Beautiful. Okay. Since you arrived in the UK, there are certain things you liked, you felt that they caught your eye and there are things you did not like. What are the things you have been happy about and the things you have not been happy with?
UK in general is old but also new, just like our country. There are very old buildings, but the old construction is matched by new construction. There are contradictions in buildings. What is nice here is that people accept strangers in one way or another. There is a thing we did not like, which is the weather. Summer lasts here only one or two months, and the rest of the times are all rain. You feel that summer doesn’t exist. What we did not like either. Of course, every country has its disadvantages and advantages. The disadvantages of the country are that there is a good percentage of racism in one way or another, I mean, for example, in people who accept us and people who reject the idea of having a foreigner in their country. We have been exposed to several situations. For example, they say this is a stranger, he is Asian, or he is not British. Two weeks ago, I was assaulted and my shop’s glass was broken. The first question I asked him, I said, why did you do this? He told me to go back to my country, there is no place for you here, you are staying in our country, go back to your country. Why did he break the glass? I don’t know. I don’t know that person, but he knows that this person is a stranger to this country (I mean the store owner who is me). He broke the glass and then walked away. And when I asked him why he did that, he told me: Go back to your country.
Well, if we talk about the thing you’ve felt the most since you arrived here. What is your most controlling feeling?
First of all, when I arrived here, the most overwhelming feeling was loss, loss of my country, loss of friends and loss of family. When I arrived, I stayed almost a whole year without friends, no neighbors, we had no one to communicate with, and we were afraid because we were in Lebanon for a long time, four years, we had a fear of those around us, we were afraid of strangers, we did not witness such thing when we first arrived, but it was an internal fear, we are afraid of racism, we didn’t know the language so we were afraid of everyone. We stayed at home for a long time, we didn’t go out the first month, we were scared to go out, we only went to college. We were afraid of how people would look at us, we were in a strange country, we were afraid that we will be exposed to someone. If someone said “Hello” we didn’t know how to say it back. I mean we didn’t know the language at all. We felt like foreigners but at the same time, I mean, what we have seen in our country, the massacres and victims stayed in our memories. So, I spent my time studying, I kept myself busy to try to forget the past and move on.
Well, have you ever imagined that you would have to deal with a situation like that?
We have never imagined that we would have to be in a situation like that, we never thought that we would have to leave Syria. In our country everything was available. We never thought that we would have to leave and become refugees outside our country. Praise be to Allah, it is what it is.
And now you feel you have developed the feeling, that you are now able to deal with the circumstances.
It is the human being’s nature to adapt to any situation, any conditions, any atmosphere, even in the desert or coping with cold. If you won’t adapt to the situation you will go crazy. You have to adapt in one way or another.
Well, do you feel like you have lost or gained things going through this experience?
We have learnt a lot but at the same time we try to forget or ignore because if we had kept thinking about everything we would have gone crazy a long time ago. We have things that we should forget in order to be able to live. This situation was forced on you, you have to start living and adapting in your life. If you think about the past, how you were and how you became, a person can go crazy.
Well, and the coronavirus? You arrived before the pandemic started, right?
I arrived in 2017.
So it was different for you than before, how did Covid-19 affect you?
The first month, I stayed at home, I mean, quarantine in every sense of the word. I would go out to get some stuff then go back home. I would disinfect, clean myself and take a shower, it was something unknown, something new. Then I started to spend time with self-education online but I was unable to learn, if I don’t have a face-to-face tutor it’s impossible for me to learn. I have a garden outside so I planted everything you could ever think of. I ordered the seeds online from Syria and I planted them here but some of them died. Generally, it was a very terrible situation to stay at home all day, there was great deal of pressure on me with my wife and my children, you see them all day and night and that puts pressure on you. Then we started to work online, we started marketing our products and services, we worked in maintenance of phones and computers. That’s how we worked during lockdown.
Okay, let’s go back a little bit and ask you, why did you leave Syria in the first place?
What happened in Syria is a long story. But ISIS is a whole another story, I mean one incident followed another. In our country, there is a tyrant and a gang that governs the country, and they control the abilities of the whole country. When the Arab Spring started in 2011, it came to Syria. Some children wrote on the walls, “It’s your turn, Doctor”; they meant Bashar Al-Assad who is an ophthalmologist, so Naguib Mahfouz who was the governor of Daraa caught those children, cut their fingers and insulted their parents a lot. I mean, he insulted tribal elders and notables in the country. Some people say that he cut the children’s genitals, others say that he cut their fingers. This is where the revolution began. Our revolution was against injustice, corruption and nepotism, people wanted freedom and nothing more. Our revolution was not a revolution to receive positions or receive the capabilities of a particular entity, no, it was all about removing corruption and removing the ruling group. So, the war or revolution, started to affect the cities one after another, just like fire that’s burning wheat. It keeps burning more and more. In one way or another, I mean, the system took advantage of the revolution. Our revolution, for less than six months was not armed, it was a peaceful revolution, with a bottle of water in the right hand and a flower in the left. And there are pictures, I mean, it’s documented how people used to go out with a red rose and a bottle of water which they handed to the army. And for six months, the system and the Syrian army were killing the demonstrators carrying nothing but water and roses. You see your friends falling down one after another, and you feel stupid, walking with a bottle of water, what then? You start to count the first one, then the second one, I’ve counted a hundred and fifteen or a hundred and sixteen of my friends who have fallen at the beginning of the revolution. There were no weapons at all, a hundred and sixteen without weapons, I mean, how long can you watch this? You see your cousins falling down. And in one way or another, I mean, the system dragged the revolution into arming. In European countries, if they had any corrupt person or anything, they would use peaceful demonstrations. Our people were very conscious. Imagine that sometimes it would last all day and night, sometimes people would take turns, they lit candles and the system would restrain them. The system didn’t want any picture to go up online, they didn’t want anyone to know that there is something against the system. And when the people saw that the peaceful revolution and the roses with water didn’t make a difference, of course, violence generates violence. Like, I mean, self-defense, it is the legitimate right of every human being in every country, people wanted to defend themselves. The law means that if a thief breaks into your house holding a weapon, you’re going to defend yourself, and that is normal. So when people started holding weapons, the system started to use something barbaric, tanks and snipers. When that wasn’t enough, they started using aviation that would be used against countries, against armies, it was used against civilians. If there is one hundred or two hundred armed people in this town, aviation was used against everybody. They went through the sound barrier wall and all the glass shattered, that was before they used bombs. They used cluster weapons and vacuum weapons. My house consisted of four floors, they threw a vacuum bomb on it, it became a one-floor house. For what? Just to destroy, destroy the whole country. When we saw how they used excessive violence, of course, it’s mandatory that you look for an alternative. I remember moving from around thirteen houses in Syria, when I live in a house, the army comes so I move to another, the army comes so I move again, and so on, security pursuits started and I had to move from town to town, from village to village, from farm to farm. Thirteen towns. I moved through exactly thirteen towns during nine months in 2013 until the fourth month of 2014. Before I left Syria, in 2012, the system came and did terrible things to the civilians. I’ll never forget these moments, firstly on August 21, 2012. Approximately fourteen thousand Syrian Army fighters entered the Daraya area of Western Ghouta. So the work bombings have spread among orchards and houses, it was either arrest or death. We have lost so many people from August 21 to August 26, in those six days, there was no internet, no electricity no water, there was nothing. In that time, I was moving from house to house, from farm a farm, every time I go into a house there were security pursuits. I mean, I went out with the last breath at the last moment. Every time I would move to a house, they would arrest someone from the house I stay in. At the last moment, my parents and sisters, left to another country. When you want to move from country to country, there are checkpoints where you have security barriers where you get arrested. So my sisters went to another country, and I went back to Daraya in order not to get arrested. when I left the house, they entered and burnt it. When I arrived to Daraya, we heard that there have been massacres and many murderers there. In those six days, no one knew anything about what happened, it was absent in the media in every sense of the word. They said that in the southern region around Abu Muslim Al-Darany Mosque, there are martyrs, many of whom I saw, I wanted to see what was happening, I saw three rivers, each of them was around a hundred meters long, so three hundred long rivers, they were full of dead bodies. In the center of the mosque square, there were also bodies, I mean at that time there were around three hundred and fifty bodies. I was looking for one person, my brother-in-law, where is he? They wrote the names of the martyrs, when they recognised someone they wrote his name and buried him, if they couldn’t recognise him, they would leave them on the side until his family comes around or they would take a picture to recognize him. Those moments were terrible, it’s very hot in August in our country, it’s summer, the temperature reaches thirty-five to forty degrees, at that time it was thirty-six degrees at nine o’clock in the morning. The bodies stayed there for six days, they were puffy, their clothes were ripped, they looked like balloons, we couldn’t stand the smell of the bodies in these temperatures. The system meant to shoot them from behind so the bullet would go through the skull on the other side so their head exploded and it was hard to recognize them. At that time I grabbed the mobile and I filmed. So far, this was the first video of the Daraya massacre and the system was saying that this video is from Pakistan. There were media investigations about this video and they said that is from Pakistan. Even if it was from Pakistan, so what? Aren’t they human beings? Until the date of August 26, we recorded 1,333 martyrs. In addition to hundreds of missing people, but we buried them on the twenty-sixth of August, 1,333, I will never forget this number. The first time we recorded it was 733, then every day we would find a hundred martyrs, five martyrs, ten martyrs. We have families that extincted, all of them were killed, on August 22, they had a wedding, the army entered, they saw the cooking, rice and yogurt, you know how it is at parties, so the army surrounded the place and the officer came asking what they were doing, they told him that they had a wedding, he asked if they had a wedding or if they were feeding the gunmen, they told him that it was a wedding and they introduced him to the groom, and he asked for the mother of the groom to come, she came and told him “Please, it’s his wedding day,” he killed the groom in front of his mother, in addition, Al-Saqqa and Al-Qaffaa extincted, there’s no longer a young generation from these families, there’s also a third family, they brought all the guys to the basement and killed them all. From all their people, only one survived, his name is Bassam, I met him after fourteen days. Bassam is very brave, he had an interview, I told him they’re gonna kill you, what are you doing here? If I were you I would run away. He told me that the system killed his dad, killed his siblings, in our country to go on media and show what is going on is a crime in every sense of the word. The weapon in the country or Syria was the camera. Many of my friends died because of what they posted or because of showing the world what was happening inside. So Bassam told me that he was going to stay, and he invited me to his wedding that was in two weeks, his whole family were killed fourteen days before. He said my mother died, my father died, my siblings died, but my life will not stop here. After what I lived. There are a lot of stories, but after what I have seen, I couldn’t continue. I left Daraya because it was destroyed, I left to another town in Syria, in 2013 I kept on moving from town to town, until I reached the border of Lebanon. Here I worked in the relief field. The relief field is, I mean, feeding refugees who don’t have anyone, feeding families of martyrs, providing bread as well as milk and diapers for the little ones. We focused on families who have little children. We were five people in each region. We didn’t know the other five people in the different regions. One day, one of the people we were working with was arrested by the system. They arrested the first one, then the second one, then the third, they arrested four people. So I was left alone, if I had waited for another day I would have ended up like them, in our country, the relief field is also considered a crime field, they call people who work there terrorists. I mean, they arrested them for fake charges such as the cooperation with terrorists and support for terrorists. When I saw that four of my friends were arrested, I left at around 9:30pm, I fled Syria to Lebanon, there was only a mountain between us. Praise be to Allah I arrived and all it was going well. I stayed in Lebanon for almost four years from 2014 until 2017, three and a half or four years, after what I’ve seen in my country I knew that my fate was either imprisonment or execution. I told you that crime they would set for me was ready, cooperate with terrorists who are children or helping terrorists who are families of martyrs or financing terrorists who were actually innocent people from my country. So imagine that some days those people didn’t even have bread, I had a car, it was an old car, so I brought bread, milk and cheese and I transported them from country to country from region to region. That was my crime, “cooperating with terrorist”; those terrorists were my family. The system was making its own rules, it was finding accuses to kill people. There is a very important thing that happened, my mom was killed and my sister was killed, when I followed the system’s media they were saying that they were helping the terrorists, how could a woman holding her two children help the terrorists? They killed a fifty-year-old woman and a young lady, why? Do you die or what? When you see these kinds of things, they’re killing your friends, your family, they’re destroying your house, they encourage you to carry a weapon. By the grace of God, we did not carry weapons, we never even killed an ant. The war was forced on us. My only weapon was the camera and publishing. We started publishing since around the end of 2011 until the end of 2017, I spent most of my time publishing on media. In Lebanon, I worked in taking care of orphans. I worked at a school, orphans there were the children of the martyrs. I worked in the field of children’s education. We could say that I was like a surrogate brother or a surrogate older brother, we live our full lives with them day and night. Let’s move to another question because if continue talking about this we won’t finish, there will be no time for other questions.
Well, I just wanted you to continue until you tell us how you entered Europe.
I stayed in Lebanon for about three and a half years. When we first entered Lebanon, they interviewed us through the United Nations. To make a file, they take your name, your address and how many children you have. It is based on the protection of refugees, but it does not protect refugees and does not provide anything at all. In the first period, about the first two months, they offered us simple things, mattresses and blankets, but then your file is disconnected because you have enough or according to them you don’t need help. So in 2017, they called me asking if I wanted to travel, then I had three or four interviews to travel to Britain. Approximately six months after the routine procedures, interviews and a medical examination. Our destination was Liverpool. In October 2017.
The events that you were just talking about that have happened, do you still think about them? And when do they come on your mind? And what’s the thing that you cannot forget?
I can’t forget my country, every day on a daily basis, I see myself in Daraya. I see myself in Aleppo Al-Sham daily, on a daily basis. The thing that affects me the most is when I watch the news on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. I see what is happening to us, I can’t even watch the whole thing, I feel like I still live there, the life of war. I mean, the most difficult situation to mention is the massacres that have taken place. When I watch the news, such as news about Somalia, I remember my country, news of Afghanistan, I remember my country. Any news I see, I remember my country. It is impossible for me to forget, the first two years when I came here, I was trying to erase my memories, I wanted to forget what I saw. But I will not forget it. It is impossible to forget. What I saw in Syria made me cry air instead of tears. I mean, I can’t even cry and let it out. When I saw the 733 martyrs, at that moment, as you can see, I have white hair here, my hair was all black, these turned white at that moment. It is impossible to forget what has happened.
How does it affect you now?
I try to read, when I read I live in another world, I try to forget a little bit.
Well, let’s go back to before the events in Syria. What was your dream back then?
First of all, my dream was working with electronics, my major didn’t help, also, our schools were a little bit away from the capital, so I started to trade. I studied trading for three years in high school, then I have entered an open education system at the Damascus University. In the year 2008 to 2009 I studied in the accounting department of Damascus University, but I was delaying it not to join the army. I mean, at the beginning, before the revolution, our army’s job was to serve a certain sect. It is called flag serving, or serving the nation, but its real meaning is serving a particular sect. This is what happened to us. Our revolution was against injustice, against the fact that the whole country’s capabilities were for a certain sect. I was evading the army for around seven years, from 2003, and then I joined the army in 2009. It was a dream to complete my studies at the Damascus University, Department of Accounting. My most important goal and dream was the Department of Media. I always had a camera with me, I had a camera in 2001, in that time it was a huge thing, it was only a camera that recorded a video, but there was no sound, it costed around a hundred dollars at that time, a hundred dollars in Syria was a huge amount of money, it was my hobby. My dream was just like any other young man: finish my studies, work in media, have my own company, and I worked in that field by the way. We started with small shops, praise be to Allah, we grew and imported goods from other countries, we worked in the field of electronics in Syria, but because of the war we gave up on our dream, a day after another, just like a rose that was losing its petals.
During the events, did your dream change?
My dream here has changed, from dreaming of being an electronics dealer to being a photographer or a journalist. I mean, I want revenge from the system. After what has happened to my family and sisters, I want revenge, but how can I get it? I will never use a weapon, I told you I would never hurt an ant, so my weapon is my camera. Now my dream is getting bigger and bigger, I’m holding a camera, which is a hobby and a reality transfer, but due to the circumstances I couldn’t study it. During the day, I worked in publishing, during the night I had another job, all I thought about was how to get money, to buy food, although in our country the situation was very comfortable, we had shops, companies and many lands, but in the war everything was destroyed and I ended up having nothing so I started working in factories in order to provide for my family.
Okay, we are almost done. Well, if we say that, I mean, if you can describe it. I mean, the points where you were strong before the revolution or advantages for you as a person. I know we have talked about it a little bit, but can you explain it a little more?
I didn’t understand your question.
Well, I mean, your strengths, I mean, for example, you can say that you were very successful in your job..
When I started working in the field of electronics or computer maintenance. I used to work in a basement, underground, so the closest people to me, like my cousins or my friends, they told me who’d be this stupid to come and fix their electronics here in such place? For nine months, I didn’t have any customers, when I felt like that is not going to work, I started in the media field, at that time we didn’t even have social media yet, we would print papers and distribute them around mosques, churches and gatherings, in that time I worked for two hundred dollars, two hundred dollars which is equal to a four or five months’ salary there, I knew that I was going to spend money, but I would get some in return. So I knew that I wanted to change into the media field, and that’s how I started, I was distributing my work, I didn’t give up. I mean for the first nine months, or the first year, it wasn’t well, then God helped me, and the lane I was working was full of furniture shops, and carpenters, there was a lot of movement in that lane, but in exchange, the only people who would come there were people looking to buy furniture, so for a whole year I didn’t make any money, but later on, I got stronger I opened a larger shop and then I opened my own company that sold everything related to computers and computer maintenance. My goal was to own a large company to import goods from China, and I worked on this point, firstly I made commercial record, and one of the things that made be stand against the system was that I filled out some paperwork to become a tradesman, in our country you need a security approval to work in anything, you need to submit your file to Palestine’s branch, or the Air Force Intelligence branch or any branch to study your file. After I paid a lot of money to get an approval for my project, I got rejected, they didn’t want anyone to work, they didn’t want anyone to import goods, they wanted everyone to be below the poverty line. I paid seventy-five thousand Syrian pounds at that time, it was a big number at that time, fifty pounds were equal to one USD, so it was a big number at that time, my shop started making money in 2011, then the revolution started and I lost everything.
During the experience in which we were talking, do you feel like you have matured or do you feel like there is something that is different about you now?
I’m becoming different every day.
You mean in a positive way?
Yes, I mean, I’m not going to say that my language is perfect, but now I am able to deal with people, language is the most important thing, I started making friends and I started to work.
From your experience, not from Europe. From your experience in the revolution period after you arrived, did you feel that the difficult experiences and circumstances changed you in a positive way?
A lot of things have changed: before the revolution, before I got married, I didn’t like children, I could not stand the voice of a child crying. When I used to see orphans in Lebanon and orphans in Syria, I started to look at the child in a different way, why is he crying? I started to hug the crying children. From a person who used to hate children, I became like a father to them. I used to take care of sixteen kids in Lebanon. Imagine having sixteen kids around you, for me it was a miracle, I used to hate children’s voices, that was a huge thing for me.
Well, one last question, what are your dreams at the moment?
I have close and distant dreams, my close dream is to start a business, to have an income for me here and for my family in Syria, anyone who is a Syrian refugee or who is not Syrian, certainly has families who are here or there, you have to take care of them. And the distant dream, if God wills, is to return to my country, in one way or another we are guests here, we have to give a good picture to our hosts. I mean, we have stayed two years, three years, twenty years, but then what? I will be old, I will be walking with a crutch, but I will return to my country, this is my distant dream. To rebuild what the war has destroyed. We hope that our country will return like it was and even better, if God wills.
Thank you. we are done, but let me ask you if you want to say something for English people, because we are in Britain, a message you would like people to understand.
We are humans, humans make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. We came to this country because we lost our freedom and our homeland. We have not come here for tourism. I, as a person, want to thank the British government for what they have provided for us, all the Arab countries haven’t done what Britain has done for us, but at the same time there is a thing we want them to understand, we came here to seek refuge until a certain time. I mean, Mashallah. They provided education to our children. They gave us a decent life. We just want them to understand that we are humans, just like them, maybe there are some differences; skin color, religion or belief, but there is something that brings us together which is humanity. I mean, there are negatives, but there are more positives than negatives. Arab countries didn’t provide as much as Britain did. I hope they visit us in our country once it gets to its best condition.
If God wills. Thank you.
Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.