About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of Refugee Mira Naddaf

Mira Naddaf

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:

United Kingdom



Alaa Alsewid

I dreamed I would start a whole new life in the UK,” says Syrian refugee Mira Naddaf (pseud, 26), who resettled in London in 2013 after fleeing “horrific” conflict in her home city of Homs. Although she feels Europe “has an environment that makes you thrive if you’re into diversity,” Mira says that overall the transition has been “bittersweet.” She says it was hard leaving her family in Syria, and since arriving in the UK she has struggled with her mental health. “I had this emotional block where I stopped feeling everything and anything,” she says. “It affects every aspect of your life.” Now a second year student in Neuroscience and Pharmacology, Mira says that living through the war has offered her a new perspective on her future. “I feel like a survivor and I have to take every chance to deserve that, the chance I was given,” she says. “My dream is to become a Neuroscientist… and implement all of my learning and all of my academic work and to a bigger cause.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

What kind of housing do you live in?
Um, I live in a shared accommodation.

And can you describe the condition?
Um, they’re fine. It’s, um, it’s an old English house built in the 80s. Everything in it is really old, um, but it’s, it’s a home. Um, yeah.

Who do you live with?
I live with four other flatmates, um…

Okay, how do you spend your time here in the UK? Do you work?
Uh, at the moment I am studying. There were times where I work, there were times where I was, um, at school or at university. At the moment I’m at university in my second year.

And can you tell us more? What are you studying?
Yes, um, so I am a second year student in King’s College, London. I study Neuroscience and Pharmacology.

Uh, what are some of the things that bring you joy?
Bring me joy? Um, oo, not many things. Um… uh, I’m a very grumpy person, but I would say music, good food, um, when I cook food, mostly. Um, sourdough bread always never fails to makes me joyful. Oh, with a little sense of achievement.

Okay. So how has life been since you arrived in Europe? What’s been good about being here and what’s been difficult?
Um, life in Europe is, um, it’s bittersweet. So, ups and downs, sometimes really up and then you’re pulled down all over again. Um, it’s-

What was good about it?
What’s good about it? Um, good about it? Adventures and diversity and new experiences that um, I don’t know, I, I feel like, you know, it has an environment that makes you thrive if you’re into diversity, if you are into adventures, um, or at least different ones than the ones that I was used to back home, um, in a good way. At the same time… Actually, not in a good way.

Uh, you can correct that. You can say from the beginning.
But I don’t want to say “In a good way” like it sounds really patronizing, yeah-

Okay, so we can delete “In a good way”.
Okay, don’t say in a good way. (Both laugh)

So what’s been difficult?
Um, what’s been difficult? Uh, paperwork, legal work, um… Starting all over again, leaving everything behind or starting all over again and, uh, trying to, to forget.

Um, I believe you arrived as a student. In that time, what was difficult?
Um, at that time it was really difficult to leave my family behind in Syria. Um, and-

And how did that make you feel in that moment?
Um, very emotional and very… and at the same time, I had this emotional block where I stopped feeling everything and anything. Um, I could see new things, I could taste new food, but nothing was… fascinating. I was just trying to sort of accommodate all of these, um, new things, but at the same time, there was something that was, that I was hiding away. Oh, one of the other hard things, um, not only was leaving my family behind, but also, uh, moving from yeah, I remember that specific time very well. It was a time where Homs was under siege. Yeah, I left from a place where my life was, you know, it was a life threatening, um, circumstances. Suddenly, you know, within a night to within a day to, um, to somewhere where you can eat anything you want, anytime you want and, uh, there’s electricity all the time. I don’t know, that shift was difficult. I didn’t feel it at the time, but I could, um, now, years later, I could see how it affected me and it caused that emotional block.

Does it affect anything else rather than the emotional block that you talked about?
Yeah, it affects, um, I think it affects your, um, it affects every aspect of your life, your sleep, your health, your academic, um, your will to live and to prosper and, and even your communication skills. Like I remember there were times where it was really important for me to discuss particular things, because they were happening somewhere else, but I needed to speak about them. Um, but, so yeah, it does um, affect me.

Um, can you describe how living here has made you feel? I know you’re already described a little bit, but like, it just like when we are talking about feeling without any other things. So living here how has made you feel?
Uh, living here has made me feel, um, proud of myself, proud of the shift that I did, um, and proud of the change that I, uh, I did to my life and to my studies and, um, to many other aspects. Oh, um, oh yeah, I feel, I still feel like I, uh, I’m still catching up with life.

Okay. Um, so how does being away from the rest of your family make you feel, especially because you was in a young age and like in that time maybe we need our family more than any time before? Um, and how does the feeling of not belonging or maybe discrimination or stigma impact you?
Uh, being away from the family was tough and it is still tough. And during Christmas, during uni or, um, time when I sometimes got trouble, but other times like you’re in Covid or when I have the paperwork or legal work that I have to sort out, um… It is difficult. Even if as much as I mean, you know, I can be the most independent person ever. But there’s still something that I miss and and it’s quite strange because now I go to see them in Germany, but there’s still one element missing. Um, yeah.

So can you say how does that feeling of not belonging or discrimination or stigma impact you?
Um, I don’t see it every day, but I could see, but there were many times that I could see it. Or if it’s not even to me, it’s the people around me. Um, it’s, it’s terrible because there’s… I think we’ve hit a point where there’s no point of being ignorant. Like, no, there’s no, what was, um… because, because there’s, um, there are no more excuses for being, for being ignorant. There’s a lot already, a lot of people there is, there is diversity and there’s a lot of Internet. Um, there’s there’s lots on the Internet to, to learn from. But, um… But yeah, it’s, it’s never pleasant, and sometimes it feels like it will never end the racism and discrimination, and it hits you in places where you don’t really expected it. And sometimes there is what we call passive, uh, racism or passive discrimination. Um, the one that you don’t feel it immediately. Yeah, you’re being judged, but not on the, let’s say, the most common sort of violent, aggressive. So there’s that passive aggressiveness, um, that comes, um, as well and it’s very frustrating.

Yeah. Um, could you ever have imagined that would you been able to handle this situation? I mean, like all the difficulties that you’ve been through, how have you been able to overcome or survive or live with this difficulties?
Uh, I could overcome them, I think.

Let’s answer the first question. Could you have ever imagined that you will be able, um, to handle everything that you went through?
No. I still feel like what I’ve been through and what many refugees and Syrians specifically have been through, it doesn’t, I don’t understand how I lived all of this in one life.

Like, I sometimes, I feel like a grandma, because this, this cannot be just 10 years of, of, of a life and then happens to be, you know, late teens and mid 20s and early 20s. Yeah, yeah, it’s sometimes unbelievable.

Um, so how have you been able to overcome, survive or live with it?
Uh, by not thinking much about it. Uh, trying to, uh, to cope day by day. Um, I think I, I was, um, and I’m still hopeful that there is, there’s, there’s a reason why I’m – I mean – basically I feel like a survivor and I have to take every chance to, to deserve that, the chance that I was given.

Okay. Um, so do you think that you…
My English is, is shit, I’m – 

No, no, no, you’re, you’re doing really good so don’t worry about anything. Uh, do you think that you developed the ability to deal with these challenges or do you think that you always had those skills or strengths or mechanism of resilience?
I think we all have, I mean, being Syrian and we, we all had res- some sort of resilience. But no, there are the challenges here, um, were different. Things that I wasn’t used to. So even if I did have resilience and power and so on, I, I, I was broken at some point. Um, and, and things did break me and then you pick up again. So it is, it is a learned skill.

Uh, how has Covid-19 affected you in terms of daily life and your mood, uh, feeling, emotional wellbeing?
Uhhh, I cope with this very bad. Um the, that third lockdown was the worst. Um, the first lockdown I was quite terrified, it, it brings a lot of flashbacks of being locked up, of being, um, unable to move or unable to, uh, to leave the house and so on. And, um, especially when people were panic shopping. That was terrifying a little bit. Um, and then this lockdown, it’s, um, it’s long, long, long, long, long hours of solitude.

Yeah, so, um, can you talk briefly why did you leave your country? Can you describe what happened?
Uh, I came to the UK on a scholarship, um, to attend, uh, um, an international university – international school – uh, for, um, for people who are below 18. Um, so it’s like a free university. Ummm, and, uh, I left, um, Syria at the time. Ummm… it’s quite hard to draw links between the things but basically, um, I would have always wanted to go to that school if I’ve ever heard about it before. But I also know that, um, it was also at the time where, um, my city Homs, was under siege and, uh, the conflict there, um, was very horrendous. Um, so, um, so that also pushed me more that I, uh, that that might be the only chance.

Okay. Um, so how did that make you feel at that time?
Uh, nervous to leave, excited to come to the UK. Uhh, terrified to leave family behind and at the same time, I looked forward to coming to the U.K. Uh, mixed feelings, bittersweet as ever.

Yeah. Um, how was the journey to Europe?
Uh, it was fine. It was a five hour flight. I’m privileged.

Okay. Um, so before that, even that led you to flee home, um, what was your dream? And can you start your answer that ‘Before the war. My dream was…’ And you can basically replace the word war with anything that you describe this event.
Uhh, just a heads up for the question before, uh, although the Lebanese border was a pain.

Oh okay.
And we almost missed the flight, now I remember. But again, it’s, it’s, it’s a privilege. I’m in no position to talk about, um, the journey here compared to many others. The, the other question that you asked was about the dream?

The dream before leaving your country. And you have to start the answer by saying ‘Before the war’ if it’s if you describe that event that happened in your country by a war or you can replace the word ‘war’ by anything else. And ‘Before the war, my dream was….’ and you complete.
Mm hmm. So the standard one is the war and then I could go and?

No, you can replace actually ‘the war’ with anything that you describe for the event that happened. Like I have the event between two brackets and you can fill it in with whatever you want. But I’m saying war as just an example.
I’d say the conflict. Yeah, and a part of me is still, uh… And I, I know what, um, I think now it is a conflict, but that’s a different topic. Um, so before the conflict in Syria, I had a dream to become a psychiatrist.

Okay. Uh, so when you were leaving your home, what was your dream for the future? And in your case, we can say, like, for example, when you are in your flight coming to the UK in that moment, what was your dream for the future? And can you start your answer by saying, ‘I dreamed that…’.
Mmhmm. Uhh, I dreamed that I would, um… Uh, I dreamed that I would…

You can take your time, that’s fine.
Start a whole new life in the UK.

Okay. Um, now before also leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strengths? Have you maintained this? If so, how? If no, why?
Mmmm, strength… Um, I was sort of an academic person. Umm, I had ups and downs in the UK, but I’m back on track now.

Yeah. But, like we are just talking now about before leaving your country, when you was in your country, what was your strength point in that time?
Strength point? Yeah, basically nothing, not characteristics, more an emotional one?

No you can talk about anything basically, a strength point can include all of these together.
Um, I was an academic person, uh, back home. Uh, I, I think I was very open minded and I remember that. And I was, um, curious, very curious and, uh, and, uh, and a secret adventurous because I did like to do adventures, but, uh, the circumstances were never, um, forgiving or permitting that. So I was doing it quietly.

So have you maintained these or if so, how? If not, why?
Uh, I have maintained the, uh, the academic even though I said there are ups and downs, I have maintained the openmindedness for sure, and it is even, yeah, I found the UK even more enriching because it’s, um, more diverse. Um, and for the curiosity… Um, it was very strong at the beginning, but then there were times where I lost a little bit of it and and, um, even the rebellious – I think I should have said rebellious as well. Uh, and then the rebellion, as well, here you just sort of feel like you should blend in and give up a little bit of, um, yeah, the rebellion.

Okay. So, um, I don’t know what you’ve been through. It seems really, really difficult. Do you feel like you have grown up in any way as a result of the experience or has anything at all positive come out of it?
Uh, yeah, definitely grown. Um… grown a lot from, from the experience. Um, positives that, that come, that pop out of, um, of a sad experience, there are many. Yeah, even though it’s been difficult, and I think it will always be difficult. But, um, but, uh, but… But like I said, I felt like I have started a new life in the U.K and as scary as this is and it was and it still is and as terrifying as it is to start a whole new life somewhere else, um, with not even a single person from your past. Um, it is terrifying. But, um, years later, yeah, I can say that it works.

And what are positive outcome that has come from it?
Umm, positive outcome, um…

In general, like, maybe you can take it personally, in your personal character or maybe in your life in general or maybe in your academic, you can take in any narrative that you want.
One positive thing that, that, uh, you know, speaking of academic. A positive thing that now I study in a prestigious university and I’m very happy with the, uh, um, the course that I’m doing. And I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing, basically. And, um, I’m very happy to have become or have learned to be very independent from a very young age and, uh, um… And learn. I think I was really lucky, yeah, one of the really positive things that, um, that I think I was lucky enough to, uh, to witness, um, after coming to the UK, was seeing so many different people in different places in the UK. Um, and I know that I am lucky because you don’t necessarily get to see what I saw. But I think I was really lucky that I did experience many, many different environments that, um, I have so much appreciation for different things and to look at life from a different perspective.

Okay, so if I ask you now, what are your hopes and dreams for the future? What you will answer me and can you start your answer by ‘My dream is….’
Mm hmm. My dream is to become, um, a Neuroscientist and, um, to… I don’t know, excel in Neuroscience. Find something in the brain that would explain lots of things that we’ve experienced and a lots of the… traumatic experience, particularly that, um, that many people go through and, um, and implement all of my learning and all of my, uh, all of my academic work and to a bigger cause, something that is related to like I said, when I was in Syria, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Now I chose a completely different path, but they’re so linked together.

So, uh, we really appreciate your answer, all of these questions. But in the end, is there anything you would like to add that might help people in Europe better understand the life of refugees?
Umm, we are many, but we are still few. And, umm… So even when we look many, we’re still a few. Uh, and, uhhh…. and even though we’re few, we deserve to be happy and, uh, we deserve a little bit more dignity.

Thank you for sharing that.

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.