From Syria to Newport: Suffering, salvation and settlement

From Syria to Newport: Suffering, salvation and settlement
When Mohammed Alabdulhameed - an English graduate from Deir ez-Zour- was called up for military service by the Syrian regime, he had no choice but to flee his country.
8 min read
16 December, 2016
Mohammed travelled through Europe for four months, and reached the UK in February 2016
At home in Syria

My story started when I was a high school student. Back then, many questions in my mind remained unanswered. 

"Why is there all this corruption in all directorates in Syria? Why has the president succeeded his father even though we are a republican country not a kingdom? Why do people have very poor incomes and why can't they live properly though we have gas, petroleum, agriculture, water supplies, livestock and many other natural resources?

"Why can't Sunnis be in high ranks in the army alongside other positions in the government as 75 percent of the Syrian population is Sunni? Why can't we say all those facts in public? Why do the Alawites control everything in the country?"

Surprisingly, all those questions finally found their answers once the Syrian revolution began, a revolution that erupted to stand up to dictatorship, to retrieve the lost justice and to regain the dignity of the Syrian people, as human beings.

It started with peaceful demonstrations to tell the world that we - Syrians - are well educated people; we hate violence and terrorism just as you do. Personally, I was one of many other Syrians who took part in this civilised movement, and have always dreamt of changing our Syria for the better.

We started demonstrating with passion, to break the cycle of submission, but it was with heartbreaking astonishment to discover that the police were there to kill us, not to protect us; they were there to protect the president - whatever atrocities he was to commit.

We started demonstrating with passion, but it was with heartbreaking astonishment we discovered that the police were there to kill us, not to protect us

However, facing calls for freedom with cowardly bullets is not the way of the world. We kept our daily protests peaceful, but the cost was priceless: We used to bury around twenty human beings every day; youngsters who had their families waiting for them to share lunch; decent men who left their wives and children in the morning for work and returned as a dead body within a few hours. Young women who went to university, but who never came back.

The more innocent blood was shed by the so-called national army, the more determined and passionate people became. Oaths were taken by friends not to stray from the path blazed by these martyrs; so we kept our protests going in spite of all these massacres.

We implored the whole world to save us from the criminal Bashar al-Assad and his thugs, but no one heard or responded; our efforts were useless.

I decided to leave Damascus and head to my city, Deir ez-Zour, after graduation, because graduates were being unwillingly conscripted into the criminal army.

The more innocent blood was shed by the so-called national army, the more determined and passionate people became

I went back home in 2012 when the Free Syrian Army began to form. FSA was then a necessity to protect people from the regime's hooligans, after such disappointment with the international community.

It consisted of soldiers who refused to kill their people and defected from the ill-reputed government army, as well as those revolutionaries who know how to use guns to defend demonstrators.

When I got back home, I started my career as a teacher of English so I could contribute to my society at a time when many teachers were being killed or had left. 

Mohammed at Damascus University in 2008

Suddenly, after two years of feeling a real sense of freedom under FSA protection, new creatures started to appear on our land; the Islamic State group started fighting the FSA in my city, and they expanded their control very rapidly.

They killed most of the FSA members there. Most of my family members were either with FSA or were big fans of them. We were wanted by IS, and I was forced to leave the country - I was wanted by the regime for military service, and by IS for supporting their enemies in the FSA.

So I moved to Turkey, where I tried desperately to find a suitable job, but it was very difficult as the Turks don't speak much English - and the Turkish language is difficult to learn. I could manage to live for around a year in Turkey.

During this year, I felt that I was in a giant prison. The Turkish government made us apply for permits if we wanted to travel beyond city limits, and it was very difficult to get it given the restrictions put on sending or receiving money.

This pushed me to think of Europe as a final resort. Deciding to leave my family was hard, but they were happy I'd be moving to a safer place.

The gateway to Europe

The journey to Europe starts with making arrangements with some smugglers to smuggle refugees from Turkey to Greece. I, through people who made it, started making those arrangements and moved to Izmir - from where the journey is supposed to start.

There I stayed in a shared house managed by some smugglers. I couldn't stop thinking of my family; wondering if I'd made the wrong decision and how much longer our suffering would last.  

But we later found ourselves in the middle of the huge sea. The waves were terrifying, and crashing around us

Late that night, they picked us up to the coast where our horrendous journey was to begin. They asked all the guys to help with preparing the plastic boat which would transfer us to Greece, best known as the country of wisdom for the world, but for me, it was the country of salvation.

The boat journey was real fun at the beginning. Syrians like to tell jokes, and to start with, the guys were making fun of the coastguard, wondering if they'd mistake us or fishermen or tourists…

But we later found ourselves in the middle of the huge sea. The waves were terrifying, and crashing around us. Water sometimes comes inside the boat, and children and women started screaming; at that moment I felt completely useless, and that life was so silly.

I was thinking of those innocent children - why are they are here? Who forced them, and their mothers, to run this risk? What if this boat flipped? People kept praying to God to save their lives, then we reached the banks of a deserted Greek island, of the salvation country. This was the worst part of my journey.

In Greece, we stayed for few days, for time is not important in such hazardous journeys. I was traveling with a group of other Syrians I met along the way, and we continued our journey on buses, trains and on foot, to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and finally France.

In the Jungle

I ended up in the Calais Jungle where I had my worst days in my life. There was no electricity, shelter or life there. I arrived on December 10, 2015. I'd heard a lot about the Jungle, but I didn't imagine it the way I witnessed it.

They started instructing me on how to make it to the UK. I needed to be brave, fit and clever

It was a very windy, frosty day; I went to seek some assistance from others. People were, and for sure they still are, very helpful in there. When they found out I was a newcomer, they were eager to help me, and gave me a tent and blankets.

A view of the 'Jungle' camp in Calais, France

They started instructing me on how to make it to the UK. I needed to be brave, fit and clever. I kept trying every day to jump on trucks and hide myself inside; sometimes the police caught me before I could even hide, and they pepper-sprayed me in my eyes.

Other times they caught me at customs, and sent me back to the Jungle. I began to lose hope, but giving up wasn't an option. So I decided to give myself another ten days to make it onto a truck, or else head back to Germany.

I was successful when a friend of mine hid me very well inside a truck, and that was a moment of ecstasy, I will never forget what it was like to reach my dream goal, the UK.

Life in the UK

Now I am here in a place where I can restart my life easily as I speak the language, and I can continue my studies in English Language Teaching, and I'm looking for a job in my field - translation, or in helping other refugees in the UK.

It's a challenge to find a room and live properly, but we are trying our best to find a job ASAP so we can depend on ourselves

When I arrived in the UK, I immediately called my British friends to inform them that I had finally made it; they were very happy to hear this great news after a real struggle in the Jungle.

I arrived first in Dover, and I was moved to London to stay for five days in Croydon, then they moved me to Cardiff to stay in another hotel for around three weeks. After that I was allocated a house in Newport and I got my leave to remain as a refugee in the UK for five years.

Now I've moved to another house that I share with two other guys - a Syrian and a Mauritian. I'm supported by housing benefit, which is about £220 per month, and I get £73 per week for living expenses. It's a challenge to find a room and live properly, but we are trying our best to find a job ASAP so we can depend on ourselves. 

I feel happy in the UK, especially as I'm surrounded with amazing friends who don't hesitate to help out. I think about my family all the time, and am doing my best to get them out - I'm trying to be practical about that. Sometimes I feel desperate, but it's important to keep hoping, and stay optimistic. My dad calls me every couple of weeks, whenever he gets mobile coverage.

I hope the Syrian crisis will finish and the dictatorship of Assad's regime vanishes so that we come back to contribute in rebuilding our beloved country again.

Muhammad Alabdulhameed is a graduate of English Language and Literature at Damascus University. He is an intellectual Syrian refugee aspiring to carry the voice of the free people of his country, Syria.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.