Regardless of where they are born, people can contribute to making our communities better places for us to live and call home. To mark Refugee Week 2021, we celebrate the strength and resilience of refugees by telling their stories of hardships overcome, lives rebuilt and dreams fulfilled. Under the UK Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, over 20,000 refugees escaping the conflict in Syria have been resettled since September 2015. Among those supported by IOM UK under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, Alaa Alibrahim, Samer Alhaffar and Nisrin Kakhy, all of whom arrived in the UK in 2016. Years later, they are thriving as Middlesex University students and in their fields of work.
Alaa Alibrahim fled the conflict in Syria where, before violence erupted, he had been a pharmacist. He moved first to Lebanon and then later to Jordan. “The working conditions in Jordan for me as a displaced person were particularly harsh and unfair. I used to work very long hours that barely allowed to cover for the basic needs of my family.” Around that time, Alaa’s health started deteriorating, but he could not get the healthcare assistance he needed. While in Jordan, he was finally able to access the resettlement scheme and safely reach the UK.
Before local authorities and NGOs help them to settle in communities across the UK, the role IOM has to play in the resettlement of refugees involves providing individuals and families with pre-departure and travel assistance, including health assessments, provision of travel documents and visas, pre-departure orientation and operational and/or medical escorts. Prior to travelling to the UK, Alaa and his family had been supported by IOM with the provision of pre-departure cultural orientation. “It was important for us to share this experience with other families that like us were about to be resettled in a new country,” Alaa explains. “Moving to a new country can be challenging, but it was reassuring to be provided with information and we felt very reassured and excited!”
“I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I had cancer at a quite advanced stage. In the UK I was finally able to access the medical care I needed,” says Alaa. Once in the UK and beginning to recover, Alaa started volunteering in a pharmacy, but his health was still not good enough for him to to continue along this professional path. “Sometimes the challenges you are facing pushes you on a different, maybe even better, path of life. Since I was not able to carry on with working in pharmacy, I started to wonder how I could use my time while recovering with my health. I started to think that I could try and do something I was passionate about, and this is how I discovered I was good at music editing for film. I really felt this was the right place for me and focusing on my study has also helped me overcome the suffering and pain I was going through.”
Alaa says he sees the UK as his country now. “Regardless of what my nationality is, I am being treated fairly. I am looking forward to getting the citizenship and be able to travel again, [since I became a refugee] this right has been taken from me for a long time now, my dream is to be able to meet with parents and sister again.”
Alaa is among 50 Syrian refugees who in 2015 were able to resettle in Barnett (London) thanks to a campaign successfully carried out by Middlesex University’s Student Union, the same University where Alaa is now completing his degree in Film.
“Sometimes the challenges you are facing push you on a different, maybe even better, path of life."
The communities welcoming refugees also play a key role in their inclusion. After fleeing Syria to Lebanon and then being resettled to the UK with her husband, Nisrin Kakhya has now been living in the UK for five years. Her husband is a journalist and they did not feel safe in Syria. “We were scared all the time. However, I was also really scared [as a refugee] to lose my passport,” she explains. Nisrin highlights the support the Finchley Progressive Synagogue has given her. “We had meetings every two weeks there and Rabbi Rebecca Birk has worked so hard for us to be able to access language courses and housing. She is my superhero.” Nisrin is currently studying Early Childhood Studies at Middlesex University. “When I first arrived in the UK, I started to attend English courses and this gave me a bit of confidence to express myself and interact with others. During the first year, everything appeared to be extremely challenging, very simple things such as taking a walk, crossing the street, using the tube. I really appreciate every help and support I get, and I want to be able to help others in the future.”
Nisrin is very passionate about her studies in the field of Early Childhood and she is now completing her thesis on the experience of Syrian migrants in the UK educational system. “I love taking care of others, maybe this is linked to my childhood,” she explains. “As a girl growing up in a very traditional community, I had nonetheless a very nice childhood. Regardless of my gender, I was allowed to play football, go to the swimming pools, all things that any child would like to do, and for a girl that was not very common. Child marriage was a widespread practice, which meant that girls were also forced to leave the school early. I want every child to have the same chances I had, enjoy their childhood.”
Nisrin adds that London is her home now. “I was excited when I found out what our destination would be. You can dream and do things here, as a refugee this is a gift we have. I feel safe and respected here, I really appreciate every help and support I get, and I want to be able to help others in the future.”
"You can dream and do things here, as a refugee this is a gift we have. I feel safe and respected here, I really appreciate every help and support I get, and I want to be able to help others in the future."
Samer Alhaffar was also resettled to the UK in 2016, after fleeing from Syria to Lebanon. “I walked through the mountains in Lebanon and it was not safe as different sides were fighting along the route,” he recalls. Samer could not speak any English when he first arrived in the UK, but can now express himself fluently and has become an active member of his community. Samer studies Film at Middlesex University, works for IKEA and also volunteers to support other refugees. “I want to demonstrate that I deserve the help I received,” he says. Talking about the experience of rebuilding his life, he stresses that, “With a small help, I can build the rest.” But many challenges still remain, such as being separated from his close family members. “I am missing my brother and struggling with a sense of guilt. I could never imagine that one day we would have been separated and I ask myself why among us was I the only one allowed to rebuild his life.” Years after being successfully resettled to a safe country, Samer says, “I wish all refugees are given this opportunity.”
Years after being succesfully resettled to a safe country, Samer says, "I wish all refugees are given this opportunity."