The following interview was done by Ella Holliday, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists and Pax Christi International’s (see more on their blog: https://paxchristipeacestories.com/) project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.
Mohammad is a 22-year-old from Aleppo, Syria who arrived in the UK in 2016 having left Syria in 2014. In the following interview, Mohammad speaks about his experience. The interview was conducted on 12 December 2016.
Ella Holliday: Tell me about your family?
Mohammad: We are a family of four brothers, me, my mum, my, dad and my three brothers all used to live in one house in Syria, in Aleppo. Me and my brother now live here in the UK and I still have my father, my mother and two younger brothers who remain in Aleppo.
What was life like in Syria? What did you do there?
We used to have an ordinary life, we would go to school then go to the swimming pool. I swam for the national team. It was just a normal life basically, everyday cartoons, watching football matches, everything that usual kids would do.
What was your social life like growing up back home? What were your interests and hobbies?
We used to play water polo a lot until we got into the team, we were considered the national team I suppose you could say, and we used to train 5 days a week after school and that is it really.
How did this change once the conflict started?
Well, when the revolution started, everything went too fast really, no one thought anything could go this wrong so fast. It was about 3-4 months from our basic usual life until we couldn’t leave the house because it was too dangerous. My mum and dad would usually be very stressed if we were just out the house and they called us and we missed the phone call. It was a really small period between our usual lives and when this all started – nobody really expected that. We never really thought about it. Soon enough we weren’t allowed to leave the house without permission. We had no electricity, no water, it was a very hard life situation to be in.
How did this make you feel?
Well at the start all of this I was just thinking about myself, well this is not fair, I want to go out with my friends or I just want to go out to the mall and just shop. I just wanted to do regular stuff but I wasn’t able to go. Then it affected my life because a lot of my friends got arrested for taking a role in the revolution so my family became more protective of me and my brother, they didn’t want us to go anywhere or be involved in this because if you got arrested, God knows what would happen next, so we were basically protected by my family, my mum and my dad. Anyone who knew me, they would just protect me and keep an eye on me in everything I was doing, from the food I bought to the stuff I wrote on Facebook or anything like that, they would always be watching me, telling me what I should do, and what I should not do. Nobody likes that, because of course, everyone wants some space for themselves.
Tell me about your journey to the UK?
So in 2014 we figured out that there is no possibility of living here (in Syria) anymore because there is no future, nothing, no light at the end of the tunnel. We can just see things getting worse and worse every day, so me and my brother decided to leave Aleppo and we didn’t think how to go or where to go, we just wanted to get out of there. So we said to my dad we need to go, we need to get out of here, this isn’t working, we can’t stay like this, so we decided to go to Turkey. We put our stuff together and we had a car come to my house the next morning at 6 am and we took around a 14-hour trip in the car. Then we had to go to the border by foot so we walked for about 2 hours to get into Turkey. I got to Turkey and stayed there for 2 years. I was studying but I couldn’t stay there legally so I only stayed for 2 years then me and my brother decided we couldn’t stay there anymore as it was not working, there was no future again. So we decided on the UK because we had a lot of knowledge of the English language – because we used to study at the university in Turkey in English. We took a trip from Istanbul to Greece by foot. It was a long trip, it was 7 or 8 hours to walk to Greece and then I spent 20 to 25 days in Greece before I moved on to the next country because I was in the detention prison in Greece for 15 days before I was able to continue with my trip and then I had a couple of failures trying to leave Greece. I eventually managed to leave Greece for Belgium on a fake passport and I stayed there in Belgium for a few days before I had to leave again to Spain with another fake passport. From Spain I took an airplane to London airport. It was around a 40 day trip altogether.
So tell me how do this make you feel having to move around different countries illegally?
It was a long and stressful journey, because all the time you had to be really careful, especially when you don’t know who to trust or who to tell your real story to, who is here to help you or who is there to put you in the next detention centre. For me I was looking at the police, not as someone to protect the people but as just another person that I needed to lie to in order to get to my destination or to get to safety. It was a long trip and I faced a lot of bad people, as well as some good people too, but it was very stressful and dangerous I think, looking back at it now, and I don’t know how I did it. I don’t think I was thinking about how dangerous it was or how dangerous was the stuff I was doing. I was just thinking I want to be done with this and think about starting my life correctly again in the right way.
What did you know about the UK when you arrived?
Not much really, just what I`ve seen in the regular news and some information from the movies. I know some things about the life habits. They speak about it in our country. They say “this is English, so English”. Most of it is not true but it gave me some brief idea about the people. Thank goodness I was not wrong! From the moment I was taken into the UK the treatment of the policemen were different. They were not treating me as a terrorist they were just saying “you will be ok, everything will be alright. Just relax, you’re here now and there is no reason to panic”. Everything has gone alright since then.
So where did you go from here then?
When I first arrived at the airport they took me into a room, an interview room, and sat me down for a couple of hours until someone said “the officers are here to take your fingerprints and to do your first screening interview” and then they took my fingerprints and made me sign something to say that this is my real passport this is my real name and so on. Then they said we will move you now to a detention centre in London as it was a weekend, a Friday I think. They said this was because they needed a translator with us so that we could finish the second screening interview whilst I was there. So they said I will spend the weekend in a detention centre and then come back after the weekend. I said that I didn’t need a translator and that I could understand English but they were insisting that they had to send one with me regardless. So I spent the weekend in the detention centre, two days there. It was a nice place, most of the people there were moving from prison, this is what I understood from talking to them, they said that before finishing their prison sentence they were staying there for a few days before being released. After two days I went back to the airport to conduct the second screening interview. It was around an hour with the same officers and they called me back because they needed to sort a few things. They just wanted a few headlines – some information about me and my trip who brought me here, and they fully searched me and they took my passport and then they moved me to an accommodation house in London.
How has your impression since changed?
Well, at the start I was very stressful in the UK. The moment that we landed I faced a not very nice border force guy. He was very suspicious of me and was very scared. We he saw my passport as I walked off the plane and they were asking for passports but all I had was my Syrian passport. When he saw this he was very stressful and angry asking many different questions, he seemed very careful but I`m not sure how to word it. He was just looking at every simple move I made. When I put my hand in my pocket he would ask why I had my hand in my pocket,” take your hand out!” Immediately he took my bag and started searching it and he was asking “what do you have in your pocket” and “what do you have in your bag? Are you here alone? How did you come here? Do you have a passport? “When I told him I got here on a fake passport to seek asylum they took three officers to search me and some others went on to the plane to look for my fake passport because that is where it told them it was. After that everything went well. I mean I am alright now.
How would you compare your old daily routine in Aleppo to your daily routine in the UK?
Well it is very different because you have family, friends, people I grew up with, my neighbourhood, my school, my swimming pool-everything is different. My normal basic day in Aleppo I would wake up at 7 or 8 am and we would have breakfast with my family and then I would go to my University, my brothers would go to school. I would finish University around 3 o clock and then go back home, have lunch with family and then we would go to the swimming pool for training. When I got back we would play games with my family, that is about it. In the UK I am waiting for my second interview – I am an asylum seeker, not a refugee and so the basic day would be taking English lessons or helping with creative activities like arranging football matches or parties or drop in centre activities. Now I have found my way back to the swimming pool. I have been training with the Lancaster water polo team and I hope things go better from there.
What are your aspirations for the future while you are in the UK?
I don’t know about the future yet. I can’t think straight; I don’t know why. I think I want to continue with my study as I left my studies in the middle of the road. I am in my third year now, I am studying to be a civil engineer, so first of all I would love to continue with my studies but let’s see after that where life will go.
In 2015 in the UK, 2659 Syrians applied for asylum whereas in Germany there was 158,657 applications. Do you think that the UK is doing enough to help Syrian refugees?
I don’t think that they are doing enough but I will not say they are doing nothing at all. I think the main reason for the difference in these numbers is that Germany is making it easier for Syrians to seek asylum and to be refugees. Nowadays Syrian people are just looking “where are my family located”, even though Germany does not want any more asylum seekers but anyone who is getting out of Syria is looking at what is the better place for him and that will be where his family and his friends are. So I don’t think the people of Syria are going to Germany rather than the UK because they prefer this country over that country. It is just about where they feel welcome or where can I be near to my friends or my family. For me when I think about it, it would have been a new country and a new language and I do not know anything about Germany other than I knew it had a lot of refugees.
The US led coalition, including the UK have conducted over 5826 airstrikes in Syria as of late November this year. Do you think that a peaceful resolution to the conflict can be achieved?
The problem is that there are so many parties, so many groups fighting in Syria and in order to achieve peace you need to first of all find the people who are supporting these groups. Every country is supporting 2 or 3 different groups which for us, for the people of Syria, are just messing around, destroying and stealing everything of Syria and. They don’t look at who is supporting who or who will win after all this or what is the right way to finish it. We just want it to finish, if it is by war so be it, if it is by peace that’s better – but we don’t care about the way how anymore. We just want it to finish.
What one thing would you like to tell me about the situation in Syria that you think the world should know?
I think that the most important thing that people should now is that the most people that are living through this thing are normal people, not Assad’s army, not the Free Army or not the other groups, the people who are living through the middle of all this are just like my family. I am worried about them all the time. My family is still in Aleppo which is not the best place to be right now. The problem is that everyone is doing something bad to them. They are in the government area but even the Free Army are saying that they are coming to make life better for people but when they come they take over a place, they bomb the place and go through it. The Russian’s are also bombing with their airforce and so the bombs are always over the heads of my family and the innocent people there. Of course living conditions could not be worse. There is no electricity, they could spend 2-3 months without any electricity or without clean drinking water. If there was electricity or clean drinking water it would be ridiculously expensive, I really don’t how they are manging to live but of course they won’t tell me over the phone or a message. They just tell me everything is alright do not worry about us.
Lastly, what would your future aspirations be if you were to return home. Where would you start?
I would want to start my life right where I left it, between my family and my friends, continuing my life as any normal person would do and hopefully one day I will be able to go back.
Ella Holliday goes to Saint Bede’s Catholic High School in Lytham, Lancashire, England. She is thirteen years old and has always had a passion for writing. She has also done work with the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD) around the refugee crisis. She says that she has enjoyed the amazing opportunity to take part in the Young Peace Journalists project and she hopes that it makes a difference to this terrible situation.