About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Sana Sultan against a black and white background

Sana Sultan

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:

United Kingdom



Alaa Alsewid

“We just wanted a home. We wanted our own home, that we felt safe.” While Sana Sultan (30) doesn’t remember fleeing war-torn Iraq with her family at 2 years-old, she does remember finally settling in England in 2000. Upon arrival she says they had “an overwhelming sense of hope,” but that adapting to a new culture was difficult. “In the beginning, we hated it… you want what’s familiar.” She says of being a refugee: “We’re not different.… There’s nothing special about us. We all had a home and we couldn’t stay there anymore. And that’s all there is to it.” She says she was able to adjust because “every person is internally very strong,” and her strength helped her. “After you’ve travelled enough places and changed friends and changed families and you learn to adapt… and just cope with whatever circumstances came.” Now, having made a life for herself in England, she says that her dream remains the same. “It’s still to have a family and to be, to have a home and to be safe in that home.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

OK, so what kind of housing do you live?
So at the moment I own my own flat, I own my own property. 

OK, can you describe the condition?
It’s actually in really nice condition. So I’ve decorated it. It’s brand new. It’s a two bedroom flat.

Who do you live with?
My cat.

Ok. Good. How do you spend your time here? Do you work?
Yep. So I have a full time job. I’m in a training position and I’m studying at the same time. And otherwise, just see my family. See my friends.

So you work as what?
I’m a medical doctor.

OK, what are some of the things that bring you joy?
Some of…my cat. She brings me joy, my friends and my family.

OK, how has life been since you arrived in Europe? What’s what’s been good about being here and what’s being difficult
I’ve been in Europe for 20 years, so that’s a difficult question to answer. But I can tell you what life was like before coming to Europe, and that was a different country in a different school on a very regular basis. So I went to 12 primary schools in a six year period. That’s how many times we moved, when we left Iraq and then coming to England, the most amazing thing that I appreciate the most is having a home and a base and a place that we can call our own, which even in the first few years of being here, we didn’t get used to the idea. We didn’t get accustomed. We kept thinking we had to leave. And my mom, the way she organizes the house, it’s always to be ready to pack up and go. Until now, she’s finally settled. And so, yeah, the safety in a base, a place to call home to have to have us grow and thrive. That’s the most that we’re grateful for in England.

What’s been difficult?
So as kids coming into a new culture, it was very hard to adjust to acclimatize to schools. The teachers thought we had special needs, so they put us in the disabled classes because we didn’t speak English. So our scores were low. So we had to struggle a lot to learn to teach ourself and to learn English and to get the degrees that we have essentially. It was hard to fit into school because you’re always the foreign kid who doesn’t speak English, who doesn’t know what’s cool, who doesn’t know about the culture, who’s just not part of the group, essentially. So those as children, that’s what we struggled with. My parents, which we obviously took their stress as well is work. They couldn’t find work. They struggled in terms of doing their degrees and things like that. Eventually they did. But those were the things that they were worrying about and that we also were worrying about.

Can you describe how living here has made you feel?
So in the beginning, we hated it. I’m not going to lie because as children, you want your own environment. You want what’s familiar. But slowly, as we grew up and went to school, started going to universities, we’ve obviously like being here as a woman as well- freedom is the most important thing. Being able to do what I want, when I want, having equality, having respect from my colleagues, being able to go to uni, being able to work. Those are the things I really appreciate about my life.

OK, so you talked about many different difficulties. Could you ever have imagined that you would be able to handle this situation? And how have you been able to overcome or survive and live with it?
So I always say that looking at the news and looking at people that I know who have come from more difficult situations, that humans are resilient. We’re very strong and we do find a way of surviving even in the most difficult of circumstances. So if I compare myself to my cousins who are still in Iraq, of course my situation is much better. And whilst it was difficult, we still, we every step we took in England was a step towards building a future, whereas in back home, every step we took was just it wasn’t building anything. It was just trying to survive. And that’s the difference. So whilst it was hard, I mean, I’m happy we went through and it wasn’t at least our life wasn’t under threat. At least we were safe and we were all together, the family, like my parents and my brother and myself.

So 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 and resilience?
I think it’s internal in everyone by no means on my special. I think every person is internally very strong. And there are things that I see other people have gone through and I don’t know how they survived it, but they do survive it and they survive it and they move on. And it’s the same with my parents, like they went through a war. My dad fought in the war. So I can see that if you need that kind of strength is often inside you, you just need to look inwards. So I don’t think there’s anything special about me. And I don’t know if I always had these strengths. And in the future, if something terrible happens, maybe I’ll also be able to cope with it. But you don’t know until you face the challenge, essentially.

So how has COVID-19 affected your term of daily life and your moods, feeling, emotional well-being?
It’s been very hard as a doctor being treating patients withCOVID-19. Like a few weeks ago I had a night shift and I had seven deaths in one night, which is an incredible amount. I’ve never as a doctor for six years, I’ve never had that many deaths. The most I’ve had is two or three per night. So it’s really hard dealing with it and wearing the masks and well, at times we didn’t have them and now we do have them, you’re wearing a mask for six hours. You can’t breathe. You know, face hurts, your head hurt so a lot of it is really difficult. And you always live in fear that you as a as a hospital worker might then carry it home to your family or your friends or whatever. And that’s also terrifying. So it’s it’s been really hard. And I think a lot of us will, you’re going to see a huge wave of mental health problems and we going to see a lot of PTSD in health care professionals. But I’ve been lucky because I’ve got a really good network of family and friends and I really rely on them. I’m very grateful for them.

So why did you leave your country? Can you describe briefly what happened?
I don’t really know the answer because it was my parents who left and I was only two years old, but in general, it was because of all the conflict that Iraq went through. We’d come out of the Gulf War and went straight into the, sorry, we came out of the Iranian war and went straight into the Gulf War. And my dad’s a surgeon and he spent all those years in the army. And I think it got to a point where he was just fed up, so took his family and left, hoping that he’d be back in two or three years. And we actually didn’t end up going back until 2012, which was 32 years out of the country, uh, 22.

Did you remember your feeling in that moment or you was too young to remember that?
Leaving or coming home?

No leaving?
No, I was really young to know. I remember leaving Dubai and coming to England, and that was leaving an Arab culture and coming to a British culture.

How’d that make you feel in that time?
So at the time, I knew how much my parents were struggling in terms of work and money, and they felt very hopeful about coming to England. And so that hope was obviously transmitted to us kids. And I remember the moment we landed in Heathrow and, when we drove, we came out, it was in September. So it was quite chilly. And I remember driving through the roads. It was very different from the Dubai air and it was very cold and crisp. And the feeling was an overwhelming sense of hope, probably because that’s how my parents felt. So.

So how was the journey to Europe from Dubai to Europe? Is there any experience that was like difficult and that you could tell us about?
No, actually, we were very lucky. We we had a tourism visa, so we came as a tourist visa on an airplane, having not struggled at all. So we were very, very lucky. And we’re very grateful for that, of course.

So now before that, even that lead you to flee your home, what was your dream? And can you start answering before the war, for example, if you name the event as a war? My dream was blah blah blah. But in your case, we could, um like, have it as you are too young when you left Iraq. We can do it, as I say and when you left Dubai.
Mhm. Yeah. I mean I was a kid so for us we just, we wanted what our parents wanted. We just wanted a home, we wanted our own home that we felt safe.

And you say like “my dream was”?
Oh OK. So my dream was to have a home- place that could be our own. A school- the same school that we went to every day rather than a different school every time. And my dream was to grow up and have a, have a future, essentially have a life.

And when you are in the plane leaving your home, what was your dream for the future coming here?
Coming to England?

Yeah, so I wanted a home for us. I wanted our parents, my parents to be happy and for us to be happy.

OK, so do you remember before leaving, like the last country, before coming to Europe, what was, what what, what you can describe as your strength point?
As my strength?

Yeah, a personal one?
My personal strength, um. Adaptation, I guess you could say that we, me and my brother were able to adapt pretty much any situation. And after you’ve you’ve traveled enough places and changed friends and changed families and you learn to adapt, and I think that was something that we were able to do really well and just cope with whatever circumstances came.

And have you maintained this? If so, how? If not, why not?
Yeah, I think I have maintained it. And as an adult, it’s much easier to cope with things than as a child, obviously. So I think, um, my family will often say that when there’s a small problem, I’ll overreact and get really upset. But with the big massive problems, I deal really well and I can manage the disasters quite well. So I think that’s probably from a childhood trait.

If I ask you now, what is your dream for the future what you will answer?
It’s no….

Can you answer the question by “my dream is”?
My dream is still the same. It’s still to have a family and to be, to have a home and to be safe in that home, not to feel like I’m under threat or that myself or my fiancee or my future children are under threat.

OK, so we really appreciate your answering all these questions. Is there anything you would like to add that might help people in Europe better understanding the life of refugees here?
You mean Europeans to understand? Refugees are humans. They’d just like you. They could be your sister. They could be your mother. They could be your dad. They could be your brother. We’re not different. We’re all the same people. There’s nothing special about us. We all had a home and we couldn’t stay there anymore. And that’s all there is to it.

OK, thank you.
No worries.

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.