Refugee Support Devon (RSD) asked members of the refugee community if they would be willing to tell their stories. In 2018, Walaa wrote her story below in English and RSD have not changed any of it, except to remove the names of her husband and family, which Walaa asked RSD to do. We would like to join RSD in saying a huge ‘thank you’ to Walaa for sharing her story with us. We hope to bring you an update in due course.
A family of four sitting in the airport in Lebanon. Looking at each other wondering what is going to happen. Six suitcases. A grandmother crying. A girl of four crying and a baby asleep. Waiting for an aeroplane. 11p.m., stretching to 4 in the morning. A man approaches, ‘It’s time to get on the plane.’ More tears. Goodbyes to Grandmother. Eventually the family board the plane. It’s time to leave.
Hello, my name is Walaa and I’m a refugee from Syria. I arrived in Britain, with my husband and my two daughters, on the 28 September 2016. I’m going to tell you my story. We had a simple and beautiful life. It was a life full of love and peace, away from all wars, away from all fears. We owned a lovely house in the middle of Aleppo which we had bought a few months earlier. We chose lots of individual fittings for our large kitchen. I had dreamed of my future, this wonderful life and my work as a teacher. But one day a dreadful nightmare came and that was the war in which all the souls, children, women, elderly people, even the animals were taken in my dream.
There was a telephone call. My husband had been arrested and I did not know anything about him for many months. He had been working in the library. I don’t want to talk about the politics because one day I would love to visit my beautiful home country again. How can a woman in her twenties bear such responsibility as she plays the role of mother and father at one time and in such difficult circumstances? After my husband’s arrest, I decided to leave and take my daughter to my family home in Idlib, a city in the north of Syria. A few days later, the bombing started.
We’d heard the bombs for nine days. Then our house was hit. My family and I were in our house at the time. There was glass and rubble everywhere. My sister, who was two years younger than me, was killed. I saw the remains of children on the pavement. There was fire everywhere. I saw bodies, I saw a boy carrying the body of his sister whose stomach was missing. I don’t want to describe any more of this.
. I decided to go to Lebanon with my mother, father and me and my brothers. I was the oldest of them. I left behind my lost husband and my memories of my sister who I’d lost and the house of my childhood that was being destroyed and all my friends who I didn’t know anything about. Through all this journey, I was aiming at one thing and that is protecting my family and myself, to provide the simplest means of living, work and housing. Then I started a life and career in Lebanon. I encountered many difficulties there as a refugee. Life was difficult and there is no special treatment as in other countries. I worried about healthcare. It was so expensive. My daughter had an accident and went to hospital. I didn’t have any health insurance. I had trouble working because I was thinking about my husband because I’d heard nothing about him. All my thoughts were about my little girl. My first job was with a charity that supports women and children. Then I worked in a primary school with refugee children. In the evenings I worked at home with women and children refugees.
And then months later, God rewarded me with my husband’s return. We went to the United Nations in Lebanon and asked if there was any way out of Lebanon. They told us “You have to wait.” So, we waited and waited for four years, struggling to live. Then my husband’s phone rang and they said to him, “We are from the United Nations. You have a meeting about travelling.” He didn’t believe it and his eyes filled with tears. After several interviews, it was decided we were going to Australia. Two months later we were contacted again, and Australia didn’t agree. Our file was transferred to Britain. Three months later, it was fixed. We were going to Britain.
At that time, I had an internal conflict. Thinking about the future of my children or staying with my family who I had never left before. The most frightening about it all was that I didn’t know anything about Britain. Different culture, different people, different languages. But my whole hope was to find safety and provide a good future for my children.
On the flight to Bristol, I could see my new country. Wonderful nature and rivers, lovely views. And so, I arrived at the place where I was to live. I was tired and tired of all the travelling. I wanted to sleep for hours. I was worried. I didn’t know how Britain was. I didn’t have any friends. It was very difficult for me in a strange country. But the biggest problem was the language. It was a very large barrier. I remember once I went to the bus with my little daughter and I was afraid of someone talking to me because I wouldn’t understand.
My eldest daughter, when she started school, was crying a lot. I asked her, “Why are you crying?” She said to me, “Because I don’t understand anything. It’s another language.” My youngest daughter cried a lot. Now she is much happier, goes to Nursery and is getting more sociable. In the beginning I studied at Exeter College. They taught me about daily life in Britain and then offered me a place at the Globe Language School who were very kind to us. In two or three months my daughter spoke fluent English and she was helping me to understand the language. I am so proud of her. The teachers have treated her so well. When I went to Parents’ Evening they said, “She is brilliant. She has done so well in such a short time.”
I started to work as a volunteer teaching assistant in a primary school. And then I applied for the job. I was very nervous when I went for the interview because all the others had worked in schools before. I was successful. Now I am a teaching assistant for two mornings a week. I want to study here, and I have been accepted by Exeter University. I am still working hard to learn English. My husband has started a Masters in Middle East and Islamic studies at Exeter University.
I have some very good friends now. They are respectful of me as a Muslim woman. I am happy that I can still worship at the Mosque. I was concerned that it would be difficult for me as a Muslim woman to wear a hijab in Europe. I thought people wouldn’t understand it. But now I see it as a great chance to explain to them what it means to me. It is part of my religion. It gives me freedom and independence. It shows everyone my religion and I am very proud of it. I am not shy about wearing the hijab. It gives me confidence. I was surprised to see that people in Britain are always smiling. It makes me happy to be here. I am pleased to say that I have experienced no racism or prejudice here. I am very happy with the way people see me at school. And I really appreciate the way my own children are treated equally at school.
Another thing that surprised me was the way in which people organise themselves. This is unusual in my country. People don’t queue, and it is chaos at the bus stops. I think that if you can organise each other without anyone guiding you that means you can build a strong and successful society. I have noticed a huge difference between schools in Britain and in Syria. What impresses me is how British schools use play to teach children. My daughter is much happier at school than I was at school in Syria. So, I am very happy with my new life in Britain.
But I really miss all my family, especially my mother and father. I miss the little things we used to do together. My mum waking me in the morning with coffee, chatting together after work. I miss my house in Idlib. I miss drinking coffee and laughing with our neighbours and having a special breakfast. I miss Friday’s special lunch with the family. But the most important thing of all is…my children are safe here. Thank you.