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This Is What It's Really Like to Be a Refugee in Britain Today

We spoke to a Syrian refugee who has wound up in purgatory after his passport was lost by the British government.
July 16, 2015, 2:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The story of Emad, a Syrian refugee living in the UK,either highlights a creaking immigration system, or a man with extraordinarily bad luck. It begins when the university he was attending in the UK got shut down, meaning he couldn't finish his degree. Then, Emad's passport was lost by the government, meaning that not only did he lose his job, he also couldn't leave the country to see his fiancée. This led to the breakdown of his relationship and left him stranded in the UK.


His father was a vocal opponent of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and has been in prison since Emad was a teenager. When his mother was denied entry to the country when they applied through the official channels—despite the fact she had fled from Syria to Jordan after being terrorized by pro-Assad thugs—she was beaten up in the neighboring state for her nationality, and Emad—her sole child—is her only close relative still living. After his mother finally made it to the UK, his girlfriend broke up with him as her family didn't approve, and he tried to take an overdose of painkillers.

Emad has spent the last decade in the UK, and lives in the World's End estate in Chelsea. For legal reasons, VICE cannot publish his full name.

His mother, Nawal, embarked on a terrifying journey from Jordan to Turkey to Italy, and then across mainland Europe. Diabetic and middle-aged, she spent two weeks in the blistering sun on a series of rickety boats with practically no food and a plastic box for a toilet. After several attempts with Emad to get across the border at Calais, she finally officially arrived in the UK in September 2014.

Now 39, Emad has spent over £15,000 [$23,000] getting Nawal to Britain, working illegally for £50 [$78] a day in a second-hand car shop for a while and racking up massive credit card bills. He is now £9,000 [$14,000] in debt and lives off £1 [$1.50] portions of Chicken Cottage. Presumably, this is what people mean when they talk about "the gravy train" of the British Welfare system. We spoke to Emad to find out what life's like for him now.


VICE: Hi, Emad. What's your impression of the way the media portrays the refugee crisis?
Emad: I haven't been reading anything in the media, to be honest—I've kind of had a really hard time, so I'm getting myself fixed, and giving myself a holiday.

You spent quite a lot of time in Calais trying to get across with your mother, Nawal. How long were you there for?
Nearly eight days.

What it was it like?
When we arrived in Calais the first time, we started trying to get across legally—to get to the border and apply for asylum. But I knew 100 percent they wouldn't let us in, because if they opened the door for us, everyone would do the same. I tried my best to do it legally. We arrived at Calais, waited, and tried to get across the Channel a few times, but we weren't lucky.

So what did you do?
We went to Holland, we were nearly at the police station when I got a call—and I was trying to apply for asylum for my mother in Holland, and my solicitor said under rules of regulation 3, I could bring her here to the UK. They said it might take a while, it might cost a lot of money, it might go to court… but my only option was to get her here straight away, whatever it costs. I'm the only person in life she has.

So we went back to Calais, and it's really horrible. First of all, there are too many people in Calais and everything is expensive. It's crowded. Because my mother is really ill, she's an old woman—she's now 59—she can't sleep on the road like other people. Lots of people are living in tents, some in an abandoned beer factory and they burn wood for heat. I've seen a lot of things.


Do you think government immigration rules are putting people into the hands of people smugglers?
Exactly. Western money is going toward these people. In my case, I'm my mother's sponsor. I have my own flat so she'd be staying with me, and I'm responsible for her expenses for five years. So she wouldn't get any benefits or anything. But they still refused her when we applied. The money I was going to spend would have been legal, but they forced me to do it illegally.

You had to deal with some menacing people smugglers—one of them even claimed he had links to ISIS, although there was no evidence to support this. How did you feel?
It was really terrifying. All of these people are liars and they're just using you—they just want your money, not to help you. They start out saying it will cost you £100 [$150]. Then it becomes £1,000 [$1,500], £1,500 [$2,350]. For a phone call they want £1,000 [$1,500]. Just for a call. People who want to bring our family over are not rich—I can hardly survive. How I got that money, I have no idea. These people are more than evil.

Are you angry that the Home Office lost your passport?
When I lost my passport, I lost everything. I was in a job, but without a passport… you can't get any kind of employment without it. I lost my fiancée. At the end, you find yourself with nothing.

Do you do any kind of work now?
Nothing, no. I'm very bored, it feels like wasting time in my life.


How do you fill your time?
Because I have certain disabilities, I sleep, visit friends, come back here. I'm fit to get out of the house. But now I'm dealing with my mother's health so I take her from doctor to doctor to the hospital.

Related: Freezing and Fighting for Aid: Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Has your mother experienced much prejudice over here?
She can't believe she lives in the UK now, the way they treat her in the hospital, the roads, the police when she came over at Dover, she was saying: "Those police, they were unbelievable." One policewoman saw my mother had trouble with her leg, so she lay down and removed her shoes with her hands. The British are like this. She says she is treated like a proper human. However, since we moved here we have some problems with someone targeting us. We don't know if it's a coincidence, but since she moved in, we have some rubbish thrown at the door and someone—excuse my language—peeing at the door. A few times, it's happened. We can't tell the police every time it happens—I give up.

Is your mom still trying to set you up with women?
All the time. Everywhere! I would like to get married to someone I know, but if we're going shopping, she'll run up to women wearing hijab, saying: "Are you married? Do you have family in the UK?" She thinks all women in hijab are Syrian.

After everything you've been through, are you feeling more optimistic?
To be honest, I can sleep properly now, I can see my friends, but I'm not fully happy because there's still some things missing in my life. In general though I'm 80-90 percent happier. Sometimes I get angry because I spent a lot of money and I'm in debt, and I feel I wasted these years. But in the end I worked hard and got my mother here and that's what makes me happy.

For more stories of how people from across the globe came to settle in the UK, and for Emad's full story, buy Finding Home: Real Stories of Migrant Britain by Emily Dugan on Amazon.