From Syria to Birmingham: A Refugee Reflects One Year On

Photo: Ryan Holloway.
A year ago, Salam Azmeh* had never heard of Asda or Birmingham. But now, the supermarket and the UK’s largest city outside of London are both part of her daily life after she fled war-torn Syria with her family three years ago.

“I’ve just been to Asda to buy a dress for my daughter for her Christmas party,” says the 27-year-old, as we speak over the phone through a translator organised by charity Refugee Action, which has helped resettle Salam and her family. “I’m making some cakes for her to take to the party. It makes me happy to see the children celebrating Christmas.”

Salam and her husband and daughter, now 4, lived in Homs in western Syria but were forced to leave the embattled city when it became too dangerous to stay. “We decided to go to eastern Syria but then they started shooting from helicopters. The shooting was intensive.” With that area also now a target, the family once again packed up and fled to the eastern side of Homs where Salam’s mother’s family were living. “We stayed in that area for a year but then the same thing happened again – low-flying helicopters firing on people. Several times a week me and my family had to leave the house and stay in the desert until it settled down.” With the situation deteriorating, the family were forced to leave Syria and find refuge in Lebanon, where they had family, before eventually travelling through to Jordan.

During this unfolding of their journey, Salam says there’s a point she wants to make clear. “The thing I’d like to tell you is that we couldn’t return to Syria because my husband’s ID had been broken. When we moved to Lebanon and he went to buy a mobile card, the ID was physically broken.” The consequences are grave. “In the Syrian system, when your ID is broken, it means this person is classed as a terrorist and you can’t go back into the country. You no longer belong to the system.”

Fortunately, for Salam and her family, there was some good news in sight. As her mother-in-law was prioritised for resettlement via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and needed a carer, Salam and her husband and two children asked to move with her to the UK as part of the government’s pledge to take in 20,000 Syrians by 2020.

On 16th December last year, the family flew into Stansted Airport, arriving with a mix of relief and trepidation. “When we came here we were panicking,” says Salam, who worked as a primary school teacher in Syria. “We were told that we would be safe but I still thought that we would not feel welcome, that there would be conflict between religions. As a Muslim woman, I was worried about racism.” Yet, much to Salam’s relief, these fears haven’t materialised. “Although everything is different here, nothing like this has happened. I’ve not felt anything like that. Although, I haven’t been anywhere except Birmingham.”

Now living in Handsworth in Birmingham, life is far removed from the desolation they endured
back home. “In Syria there was conflict and war going on all the time. Fires and stuff like that. Here we have easily settled down. We have residence, a house that was already furnished with everything in – nothing was missing.” I ask Salam what’s been most difficult for the family. She says her eldest daughter had a tough time settling in. “In the first month and a half when she went into nursery, it was really hard. She used to cry so much because she just wasn’t used to it, but after that she got along with it very well. Now she’s speaking English perfectly and growing up learning so much. It’s very good, she feels happy at school.”

On a less serious note, Salam says acclimatising to the British weather has been hard. “I would say I don’t like the weather. After we arrived we suffered from vitamin D deficiency. It took us a long time to get used to the weather.” She laughs again. “In our country if some rain falls, children don't go to school!”

Now her children – she also has a 2-year-old daughter – are both enrolled in school and nursery, Salam takes English classes every Friday as she looks to rebuild her life and rejoin her profession in her new country. “I’m focusing on learning English – I need to achieve level three in English to become an assistant teacher. But I don’t just want to be an assistant teacher, I want to become a primary school teacher.” As she learns English, she says the plan is to build her teaching experience in the UK by volunteering in a school.

As for Salam’s husband, who also worked as a teacher in Syria, he immediately enrolled for English tuition classes. “He’s still learning English but his wider vision is to go back to teaching mechanics like fixing cars so he’s looking for work in that domain.”

Her family has no immediate plans to return to Syria. “When I left Syria, I said we would not return until the war is finished. Of course I do miss my country at the end of the day, but when I left Syria and even lived in Lebanon and Jordan, I wasn’t able to do a lot of normal things, things weren't available to me. For example, in Jordan I had no chance of working at all. They could send us back to Syria at any point because there’s no agreement so I was happy to know we could come here and be settled.”

Here, in a free and liberal country, they can rebuild their lives and plan for the future. “It was definitely the safe option for us. We have rights here. Things are better here, we’re able to live properly. I can learn English, study and find a job. They have the NHS – one of our children was poorly and we were able to get an appointment and get her checked out.”

Salam knows they’re among the lucky ones. “It’s really bad seeing what’s happening and what they’ve been through. My God, help them.” As they mark their first anniversary of living in the UK, away from the devastation back at home, Salam is grateful for the chance to start again. “We’re so happy here.”


* Salam's surname has been changed

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