About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Zaina with her hands behind her back

Zaina Erhaim

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:

United Kingdom



Alaa Alsewid

“You feel like you’re being attacked by everyone because you are a human rights defender, because you are a journalist,” says Zaina Erhaim (35), a Syrian refugee and journalist currently living in London. She says threats made against her because of her reporting forced her to flee Syria in 2017, but because she had previously studied and worked in the UK the process of relocating was relatively simple. “I think I’m one of the luckiest refugees,” she says. Although she has faced some housing and employment uncertainty because of her status, she nevertheless enjoys the stability she and her young daughter have found in the UK. “This sense of stability, belonging that I started to feel is certainly a good thing,” she says. Erhaim says she has already achieved her dream of becoming a journalist, and now she is “dreaming of getting a passport that would recognize me as a full person, as a citizen who is respected and wouldn’t be interrogated or questioned based on where they were born.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Umm, first question, what kind of housing do you live in?
Umm, private.

OK? Can you describe the condition a little more?
It’s perfect.

Cool. Cool. Who do you live with?
Um, I live with my family, my partner and my four year old girl.

Um, how do you spend your time here in the U.K.? Do you work?
Yeah, I do nothing but work, to be frank.

Um what are some of the things that bring you joy?
OK, that’s not an easy question. Um. I don’t know, but maybe cycling, hiking with my daughter, seeing some friends, especially those days, I think those are the only ones.

How has life been since you arrived in Europe? What was been good about being here and what was being difficult about being here?
I think the hardest was the first couple of months because I have been a full time employer with my organization. But then when I applied for asylum, they were forced to fire me because they are not allowed to hire a person who doesn’t have a status here. So they do want me and I do have work, but I can’t do it because of this status. But luckily because of the letters that they submitted saying that we need Zaina to go back to work, the procedure didn’t take long. So I was rehired. But again, because I refused to take any kind of benefits or help from the government, I got an Airbnb when I arrived, which is like a huge amount of money. Um. But then no one was agreeing to let me a house because I don’t have a status and I don’t want to go to the benefits. And I can’t survive second or third month with Airbnb paying four thousand dollars a month. So those were like pretty difficult time. So they are pushing you to rely on the government and the supplies and because you don’t want to you find extra difficulties. Eventually a friend let me their house and it went well.

How was your feeling in that time?
I was angry, I would say, um because I am. I’ve been in the UK before. My master is funded by the UK and I’ve been with my organization then for five years.So everything is known about me and but still I wasn’t able to find or to let a flat nor to do my job.

So what about the good things?

No, like you spoke about the difficulties as you arrived in Europe, but what was the good things?
I think security would be would be the main thing. I feel stable. I think this is the first time in my life where I feel like stable. I know where I’m going to be staying. I know that I’m not going to be grabbing my daughter and take her to another country, another school. So this sense of stability, um, belonging that I started to feel is certainly a good thing.

OK, so you spoke about a difficult time when you arrived here. Could you ever have imagined that you would have been able to handle this situation? And how have you been able to overcome or survive it?
Yeah, you know, we’re Syrians. We survive everything. That wasn’t the the most difficult experience I’ve had. Certainly what I was living amid war when I was doing journalism in Syria, I faced far more extreme circumstances. So that wasn’t the most difficult one.

Ok. Um, do you think you developed the ability to deal with these challenges or do you think you always had those skills or ability or mechanism?
I think as a woman, first, and second as a Middle Eastern or Syrian living in our conservative societies, we learn from birth how to manipulate and to be able to negotiate your ways around things. So I think I already had them when I came. I just need to say them in different language.

OK, how has COVID-19 affected your term of daily life, your mood, feeling, mental health?
My mental health wasn’t perfect even before the COVID, but not being able to see my mom who is still in Turkey, and for my daughter not to see her grandparents for this long time, this was the most challenging thing. And my uncle died in Turkey with a car accident, so it was a sudden and I wasn’t able to be there with my mom. And she is on her own now. And I can’t apply for her to come to visit because she wouldn’t be granted a visa. So this sense of helpless is, I think, the most depressing thing I’ve felt during this year.

Um, so now we’re going to talk about the past. Why did you leave your country? Can you describe briefly what happened with you?
So I did my master’s degree here in London. I worked with BBC for one year, and then I decided that I… I don’t want to stay outside, although the uprising was on by then, but, um, I try to go back. But I wasn’t able to go back to the regime-held areas. I had to stay in rebel-held areas where I survived for almost three years. But then because of my journalism work, which is not liked by any of those who are controlling the different areas in my country, I was forced to leave. I was threats, and even my family in Turkey had some threats because of the work I do. Um, so I eventually come to the UK and I chose the UK because they confiscated my passport.

So how did that make you feel at that time, like at the time that you decide to leave your country?
Um, I’m not sure, but I think at some point, especially when the UK decided to confiscate my passport because the regime reported the stolen, at that point, you feel like you’re being attacked by everyone because you are a human rights defender, because you are a journalist. And you would question whether you were on the right side of the story. If the Interpol is being misused by a regime that is recognized as a criminal and then your people, your government are supposed to protect you, is attacking you, and then the rebels who were supposed to bring freedom are also attacking you. I think at that point you would question every single narrative that you had in your mind and everything is going to be wrecked.

And how is the journey to Europe? Is there any experience that was particularly difficult?
I can’t compare my experience with those who took the sea because I had a visit visa. I just apply for asylum. But I think having to do that with my then two years old daughter and being put in that tiny room for almost 24 hours where she was asking me question I wasn’t able to… to answer and knowing that I won’t be able to see my family for at least a year. Those were the things that were difficult. But certainly I can’t compare them with others.

Which room can you describe more?
Um, in Heathrow Airport they have a room for those who they investigate further or I don’t know what is that? They had some toys, which was fine, but we were put with other people who have family. We didn’t have a place to lay down. We were sitting on the floor and my daughter was too tiny. I needed to entertain her. And and I’m I know my mental health and my ability to entertain here was very limited. So those were very long, I think, twenty four hours.

So how was your feeling in those twenty four hours?
Um, I just wanted the time to pass and I want to get out whether they’re going to deport me back or get me in. I just wanted it to end.

Um do you think about these twenty four hours often?
I haven’t thought about them until you ask me.

Well OK, great. We’re going to skip the question. Um. So. OK, I think these questions are not applying to your situation. Yeah, so before what happened in your country and like everything happened before everything, what was your dream and can you start your answer by “My dream was?”
Um… my dream was to become a journalist and to work in a human rights field, and I’ve never imagined or plan to leave Syria, although since 2006 I was actively participating in activities in Europe. So I was traveling a lot and I’ve seen what Europe is. But I was like, I like it for a visit, but I would always go back to Damascus. So I’m kind of achieving my dreams, but just in a different location. But this is what I wanted to be.

And when you were leaving your home, what was your dream for the future? And can you start the answer by “I dreamed that?” Like in your case in the moment that you are in your plane coming to the U.K., if someone asked you in that moment, what was your dream for the future, what are you going to say?
OK, my my dream became less ambitious, far more less ambitious. I was just dreaming of getting a passport that would recognize me as a full person, as a citizen who is respected and wouldn’t be interrogated or questioned based on where they were born. So, I feel like I’m just counting days to be able to get that British nationality. And I think I will start live by 40.

So before leaving your home country, what would you describe as your strength? Have you maintain this? If so, how? If not, why not?
The main strengths I had beside my strong personality is, um, the family and social support I had, and this certainly is not there anymore. I can not even get my mom a visit visa to to be with me.

But like in a personal side?
Um, yes, certainly. But this is I’m not sure whether this is related to the refugee or asylum experience. This is more about surviving a war. I’m certainly far more developed person, much more cautious, mature. Lots of things that I used to believe in three or four years ago are completely gone. Um. But this is a combination of aging, surviving a war and then being able to, for the first time ever, feel secure.

Yeah. So what you have been through seems really difficult. Do you feel like you have grown up in any way as a result for what happened with you, or do you have any or do you feel you have any positive outcome?
Yeah, certainly, um… For everything. By reporting the war, I became an independent voice. I was able to deliver unique stories that were not told before. And even now, when I’m still writing my testimonies of what has happened, even the very most difficult parts of the war itself certainly developed me and I certainly gained a thing from every bad thing I passed.

If I asked you now, what is your dream for the future, what you will answer me and can you start your answer by “My dream is?”
My dream is to get a passport and start living as a free person when I’m almost 40, to be able to vote, to be able to feel secure, not to be scared from police, although I haven’t done anything. To be able to settle down eventually.

Yeah. So we really appreciate your answering all of these questions. What finally is there anything you would like to add might help people in Europe better understanding the life of the refugees?
Um, again, I think I’m one of the luckiest refugees because when I came, I already had the British Academia certificate and I had the work and the full time job. So I can’t really question, lecture them about this.

Uh, you deal with many other refugees and you know what they are suffering from. So, what the message you can direct then to European people to understand the life of refugees.
Maybe just to learn from your kids, because our kids are turning into very much European and British people, so just learning from them on the concepts, the abilities, the adaptation, the quick adaptation that they have. It’s a fascinating… fascina…fascinating resource of education that we have in our houses.

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.