‘Bringing my family out of death is the greatest thing I will ever achieve’
Friday 23rd June 2017
Refugee activist AHMAD AL-RASHID, who ‘starred’ in BBC Exodus documentary, tells the story of his traumatic journey to Britain from Syria and his reunion with his wife and children
WHEN I started filming my journey, it was just for me, for my family to be able to see what I’d been through, to know how hard I tried for them.
Filming in secret was hard. The traffickers always make you remove the battery or destroy the Sim because to them, a camera phone is deadly like a Kalashnikov.
But I managed it, and when I came across the BBC filming in Greece, one guy approached me about the Exodus documentary and asked if I’d be willing to share my material.
I’d seen people beaten by authorities and traffickers for filming, but I said yes. I knew it was a risk but it was a risk I thought worth taking, to document these moments of horror that we refugees go through so people understand the human consequences of Europe’s policies.
You see reports but they never show the reality or the humanity of it. They talk about a million people crossing to Europe — well that’s a million stories. I wanted to share just one, in its completeness. For them.
When we realised we had to get out, my family and I were already separated. They were still in Aleppo and I was in north-east Syria. In between is Raqqa, the Isis capital. I would have been beheaded, for sure. When I spoke to my wife on the phone, we kept remembering a friend from my home town who left in 2014 with his wife and children on a visa to Libya.
From there, they took a dinghy to Italy and it went down. He had seen his pregnant wife and four children drowning in the sea in front of his eyes, nothing he could do. They all died, every single one. My wife and I were talking like we were dead already.
It made it easier somehow to make plans, to feel less afraid, if we pretended we were already dead and just needed to choose how to die. That’s how we thought about it. I knew if I was killed in an air strike, it would be quick and that drowning would be very frightening. But on the other hand, that road might lead my family to safety. I had to gamble. I chose to make the journey to give them a chance, however small, to make it out alive.
They stayed in Aleppo and I took the route from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, then a ferry to Athens.
In Athens I met another smuggler who gave me a fake Bulgarian passport to buy so from there I could fly to Marseilles, destroying the passport en route in case I was caught by the police and sent back to Greece. Game over.
Those two weeks in France were very difficult times. I was eating and sleeping in the streets, trying to jump onto refrigerated lorries. It’s so dangerous, doing that.
My last night in Calais an Egyptian smuggler put me with seven other people in a tanker of bread and flour. Two hours, they said, and you’ll be in Britain.
And then we were locked in total darkness and he walked away.
I turned my phone on but I had no signal. We couldn’t contact anyone and there was no air. For five hours the tanker didn’t move.
After seven hours we started to panic, certain that we would suffocate. We screamed and cried and hit the walls. A small child passed out in the floor.
Eventually the driver stopped and let us out. It was the French-Italian border. Wrong car, wrong driver.
We got out of the tanker, covered in flour and headed back to Calais. This time, from Calais I went back to Germany and met my little brother for the first time in five years. Seeing him gave me what I needed to keep going.
I found another smuggler who put me in a lorry for three days with two other people. But this time, at least, when I was let out my feet landed on British soil. That was June 2015.
I had chosen to come all this way to Britain because I speak the language — which I knew would save me three or four years of stolen time and enough had already been stolen from us.
I’d also heard Britain’s family reunification system was faster than Germany’s. I had one friend whose family had been trapped in Syria for three years while he tried to get them safe passage. Back home it’s constant shelling, constant bombing, and when you can lose everyone in a minute, waiting three years just isn’t an option you want to consider. After I arrived, I was detained by police for a time and then dispersed by the Home Office. After three months of uncertainty and waiting, I got my refugee status.
That very day, I already had my family reunion forms ready to go. We had been apart for one year and I couldn’t wait a moment longer.
Even then, there were new obstacles. After you get refugee status, with no national insurance number or anything, you have 28 days to find new accommodation or you’re out on the street. Imagine that, your first steps in this country are into homelessness — what a horrible idea.
Then I came across Refugees At Home and this husband and wife — descendants of refugees who fled the nazis in Austria — invited me into their home until I got settled, so I’d have a roof for my wife and children.
People like that, they’re what “shared future” means to me. Refugees At Home has sheltered a refugee over 20,000 times now to prevent them from sleeping on the street.
That kind of mutual aid shows the best of what it means to be human, whatever your skin colour, wherever you’re from. To have suffered, truly suffered and find people stepping towards you in solidarity with open arms — it’s an amazing thing, and it makes a difference that lasts generations. It builds our shared future.
Twenty-nine days after I got my status my wife and two baby daughters were on a plane to Heathrow. Meeting them at the airport was the happiest moment of my life.
I knew when I left them I had little chance of ever seeing them again. But here they were, back from the dead. I didn’t believe it until I had my arms around them.
I took them home to our flat and while everyone was sleeping I spent the whole night sitting up, watching my daughters’ faces. I couldn’t stop, thinking about all the families and children that lived around us in Aleppo who were separated or gone.
Looking at their peaceful, sleeping faces, I couldn’t believe we had made it. Sometimes I still can’t. Bringing my family out of death is the greatest thing I will ever achieve in life.
The time I spent hosted by Refugees At Home changed everything. They developed my confidence and English skills and encouraged me to apply for a refugee scholarship at the the School of Oriental & African Studies.
Now I’m studying for a master’s degree in violence, conflict and development and it’s been one of the most exciting experiences of my life.
Life at Soas is very interesting, the way it brings together people from all over the world, with so many experiences and perspectives. Every day there are debates, marches, talks. And there are so many different societies — including a Syrian and Kurdish society.
To me, this is something unbelievable. All my life in Syria we were never even free to speak Kurdish, to show our flag, share our identity — and here, everyone expresses it freely. It’s beautiful.
It’s not all rosy, though. Being someone who’s been living in a conflict zone in the last five years, I still can’t quite get used to sitting in lecture theatres and discussing the theory of why it all happens.
It’s really changed my perspective because even though I had lived experience of war, I didn’t know enough to analyse its causes. But that’s also been traumatic, that learning process.
I’ve been so shocked to find out how the system really works, how the UN actually operates, how international aid really works — or doesn’t work. It’s very shocking, but so important.
All my people back home have no idea about all of this, they’re building their hopes and dreams on nothing. They talk about how in Syria one day everything will be all right and we can go home. But social cohesion has been destroyed. The economics of that country have been destroyed. And international powers are playing a very dark role; they’re not going to let Syria out of their control.
To see the truth, it makes me very depressed. It will be a very long process for Syria to get back on its feet, it will cost many more lives and take many more years. That’s the truth.
But what I’m interested in is learning how to understand and contribute to that process and preserve peace in other parts of the world. I’m also involved in the exiled Syrian community, helping to try to extend scholarships to more refugees, and giving talks on my asylum experience.
I talk about my story as a story of hope and I really think we need more of those, especially in dark times.
Stories of hope are what bring people together and coming together is a win-win situation. I am so proud of being Syrian.
After six years of bloodshed the Syrian people remain so determined to stay standing, to rebuild their lives and contribute to something better, tomorrow.
The world has a great opportunity to embrace my people, who will be a credit to their new communities.
As for us, my family and I know we are among the very lucky few. Every night when the four of us go to sleep we are so happy. I put my head on the pillow to sleep and I can feel confident that when I wake up my wife and daughters will be safe.
I had forgotten what that [was] like after six years living in constant fear. Truly, it’s like heaven. And watching my little girl grow up, learning English at nursery, laughing and playing … it’s a wonderful thing.