This time last year I was still in Syria, travelling back and forth between the Iraqi and Turkish borders. I was working for the United Nations after graduating from the University of Aleppo, and because I could speak English I'd been employed as an interpreter helping aid workers and journalists at the camps for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Before that I had worked in child protection and children's health for the Red Cross in Aleppo, where I grew up and lived with my family.
I had been working for the UN for about three years when Aleppo came under siege and I lost all contact with my family. In May I decided to go back to find them, but found it impossible because ISIS had taken control of almost all the routes that led into the besieged city. There was heavy bombardment and snipers, and it wasn't possible for me to cross.
After a few days I decided to go to Turkey. In exchange for £140, a smuggler I met agreed to help me make it across the border, crossing from Dayrik in Syria to the Kurdish area in the southeast of Turkey. We went by boat across the Tigris River at midnight. It was a tiny little dinghy with space for just six other refugees. On the other side of the river was the Turkish army, guarding the port, on the look-out for refugees like us. Just one night before, three people had been beaten and a woman shot dead while attempting the same crossing. Our smuggler had bribed a police officer on the other side to turn the search lights out during our crossing, but that didn't necessarily mean we were safe. We were terrified, naturally, but we also knew we had no other choice if we wanted to get to Turkey.
From there I went to Bodrum in Turkey, where I met a smuggler who offered to take me the three-hour trip to Kos. I ended up on a boat with about 88 other people – Iraqis, Syrians, Afghanis, all of different ages. The atmosphere on the boat was extremely tense. Just one day before a dinghy had sunk and more than 40 people had drowned. Everyone was really scared; there were children crying. I remember thinking that if I died there, in the middle of the sea, no one would even know. My ticket to ride was £1,000.
When we arrived, the reception from the Greek people was amazing. A lot of people brought us things to welcome us; people were handing out food, blankets, clothes. Some offered to take refugees in. From reading the English papers you would think the island was full of tourists scowling about their holidays being ruined, but actually everyone was so supportive. And it wasn't just the locals – the holidaymakers were helping us as well. When you know someone's coming from a war zone, you're not going to be angry with them.
That said, there were more than a few incidents of journalists preying on refugees to get a good story. Too many times, refugees had to beg journalists and photographers not to film them or take their photographs, and on more than a couple of occasions the police had to step in. It was common for journalists to pay for someone's lunch in exchange for a story that fitted their narrative. On one occasion, one of them actually gave a refugee a camera and told him he'd give him £15 if he got 10 minutes of footage inside a refugee camp. Everyone was mad at how exploitative it was, but in the end I think the only reason he got stopped was because the police didn't want the world to see how bad the camps were.
It took about two weeks to get my papers sorted and fly to Athens. By this point it was June. There, I met someone who got me a passport, which I used to fly to France. The network of smugglers and human traffickers is kind of like a mafia; there's a square in Athens where they all sit, and you can just go there and ask them for a passport. They cost between £100 to £3,000, depending on the passport, your nationality, the destination, etc. Of course it's all illegal, and a risk, but by this point I'd survived massacres, I'd survived shellings... the risk of taking a fake passport to the airport is nothing compared to all that. If I'd been given the option of using my own passport and my own visa, believe me, I would have.
I got to Paris about 10 days later and made my way straight to Calais. Arriving in Paris was incredible, because I knew I'd done the majority of the journey. I only needed to go to Calais and then, from Calais, it was just a matter of getting to England. Also, this time I was there in an "official" capacity; I didn't have to register or stay in a refugee camp – I could travel freely.
Mind you, compared to Kos, Calais was horrible. I was staying in a camp not far from the Jungle, on the outskirts of the town. Even though it was June the weather was awful. We were sleeping on the streets in the freezing cold and rain, and there was nowhere to wash. No one came to support us, no one helped us, no one wanted to have anything to do with us. It was a weird stopping point – everyone thought they would be able to get across immediately, and actually we were just stuck in limbo.
Every night for the next two weeks we tried to find a smuggler who would hide us in the back of their lorry. I tried three times in the backs of different refrigeration trucks carrying meat and fruit. Each time we either got caught by the police or got too cold and had to bang on the door to get let out. The third time we were in there for nine hours and I could feel myself beginning to suffocate from the cold. When the police catch you they tell you not to try again, but then – if you're Syrian – they just let you go, and we'd do it again the next night.
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After the third time in a refrigeration truck I met a smuggler who offered to take me and two other Syrian refugees in his lorry. This one wasn't refrigerated – its cargo was crisps – but we still had to get past the police without getting caught. We knew they had all sorts of checks for the lorries – lasers, motion detectors – and if they catch anything they send the policemen to check it in person. We had to sit completely motionless for 30 minutes to be in with a chance of avoiding detection, but somehow we managed it.
On the other side of the Channel we jumped out of the lorry and went to the police. We told them we were from Syria and they took us to immigration and asked us all these questions about who we were, who we knew, what our plans were. We were there for one day just answering questions. I think it was Dover, but I'm not sure where it was. Apart from the fact we never asked the smuggler where we were going, they also confiscated our mobiles during questioning. To be honest, it didn't seem important. We were just happy to be in the UK.
The day after the questioning we were taken to some asylum seekers' accommodation between Birmingham and Wakefield, where I spent the next two months waiting to be interviewed. The interview itself was very straightforward. It was all the normal questions we'd been asked at the port immigration, plus some questions about Syria and the conflict, in order to make sure we were Syrian. They also had a language expert who could tell if we were Syrian from our accents.
In October I was granted asylum and told I had the right to remain in the country. I had 28 days to move out of the accommodation and find somewhere to live, so I started reaching out to friends and acquaintances and people on social media. I found a couple online who offered to take me into one of their kid's old rooms in Epsom. They told me they'd rather I stayed there than them having an empty room in the house. This compassion was pretty representative of everyone in the town: there were a number of other Syrian refugees being hosted in the area by English families, and everyone was doing their best to help us find our feet and make us feel at home.
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No one leaves home by choice. Why would someone who has grown up in Syria leave their home for a place they'd never been to? They're leaving behind their language, their culture, their history, their house, their routine, their loved ones. You've got 4.5 million refugees, about 8 million internally displaced people, over 1 million people injured, a quarter of a million killed, 3,000 schools destroyed, 3 million children out of school. These people aren't coming here because they want to; they're coming because they can't go home.
For the last month I've been travelling around universities and meeting a lot of people. I decided I wanted to study an MA in Developmental Post-Conflict Resolution so that once this is all over I can go back to Syria and Iraq and help refugees. As an English student in Aleppo I'd always wanted to come to the UK to study my masters and PhD. I never imagined I'd be coming as a refugee in the back of a lorry, but sometimes things don't turn out as you expect them to. To me, it's important to treat everything as an opportunity. When I realised I had to leave my family and my home in Syria, I decided I was going to go to the UK so I didn't have to lose time learning a new language and a new culture.
When I meet new people, sometimes they're surprised at how quickly I'm getting on with my life. I was only granted asylum a month ago and I'm already applying for a masters? It's like they think I should be mourning or worrying or keeping to myself. To them, I always say the same thing: I had a choice – I could either be dark and sad and push myself further and further down, or I could look on the fact that I'm alive as a blessing and use it to push me forward. I decided to choose the latter.
*'Kurdo' asked that his name be changed to protect his family.
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