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LIFE EXPERIENECES: SYRIA

This week we have a takeover by three University of Huddersfield students who recently interviewed other students from Rwanda, Syria and Nigeria about their experiences of war, displacement and genocide. All those interviewed currently live in Huddersfield.  

“… which I totally refused the idea, I refuse to be part of this killing machine.”

Sleman Shwaish

Leaving home

In March 2011, the Syrian government was challenged by protesters who demanded the government stop its authoritarian practices. However, the Syrian government responded violently by using the police and military forces to suppress the demonstrations. Sleman Shwaish was in the final year of his undergraduate studies when the Syrian conflict began in 2011. He intended to further his education, and eventually help his father’s pharmacy. However, a new rule at the time demanded graduates join the army unless they would be arrested and punished, this prevented Sleman from continuing his plan to study in Syria. 

“It started in 2011, when Syria followed the Arab Spring, and the conflict started in the region. So by that time, I was the final year in the Department of Food Science, which is five years of studying in Syria. So it was in the final year, and I was like looking forward to graduate because my plan was to go to my dad’s place to replace him and help him because he already had a pharmacy. So that was the plan, to go back to my hometown, and start helping my dad in his place and continuing my future. But first of all, I wanted to do my master and graduate from my master, and then go back.”

“Because of the wars, anyone that graduates from the university before doing anything, before continuing to study a master or PhD, he must join the army, which I totally refused the idea, I refuse to be part of this killing machine. But I didn’t want to do that.  So, you have two options either to be arrested, or kidnapped or killed because of that by the government or you need to follow your future, or your plan your dream and go to somewhere safer.”

28 days in Iraq

On arriving in Kurdistan, he discovered that it was difficult to seek asylum and settle in Iraq as a single male. This was because male refugees were given the least priority as families and females were considered a higher priority. Sleman lived stayed with a family friend who hosted him for 28 days,   awaiting registration as a refugee but this did not work.

Journey to Lebanon and Istanbul

Sleman found himself on another difficult journey to Lebanon which was also unsuccessful as the Lebanon authorities at the time, Hezbollah, supported the Syrian regime. Therefore, Syrian refugees found it difficult to settle. Without successfully resettling in Lebanon, Sleman went to Istanbul feeling hopeless. “By that time, I kind of lost my hope”. At this point, his father helped him with money to help his son come to the UK. Sleman was smuggled through Turkey and arrived in the UK on 3 December 2012.

The struggle 

Sleman arrived at the Heathrow airport in just a T-shirt and was met with freezing weather. He was shown kindness by a lady who gave him a blanket, fed him, and offered him means to contact his family. He registered at the Home Office the next day, and he was sent to live in Sunderland, Northern England. He experienced difficulties living in Sunderland as neighbours were unwelcoming to foreigners. “It was not an easy experience living in Sunderland”. Sleman reported an attack by a neighbour, but it was not resolved due to a lack of evidence. However, he was advised to leave the city for his safety. 

“The smuggler helped me arrive at Heathrow airport, I remember exactly when I arrived, which was 3rd of December, 2012. We departed here by 10:15 evening. Why I remember is because I came from Turkey by summertime, it was really nice weather, like Spain now. So, it was wearing a T shirt, feeling that it was really nice there. And I came to a freezing place. So, it was like being putting on a fridge when I came to Heathrow Airport. And I was like, shaking and I was like, really freezing. So I told them to help me at the airport, and they couldn’t understand what I want. So I went to the officer, and I told him I’m Syrian, and here to claim asylum, which the smugglers told me what I need to say that I should hand them my passport is say this sentence. So I thought maybe he’s gonna like, you know, like, hug me and he’s gonna thank me for coming to the UK. Welcoming to me. Yeah, a hero from Syria came here, you know, like, and he was like, just no reaction. And he said, Okay, stay here tomorrow, we’ll send you back to Syria. That was like the other I’m gonna say like, I can’t really describe but I couldn’t think straight by that time like should I cry, should I laugh.”

Finding peace in Huddersfield

Sleman found a Kurdish online community on social media where he shared his grievances and his wish to study. He was advised by the members to move to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire as it had a good university and a friendly community. Sleman gained admission into the University of Huddersfield where he obtained a Masters degree in Nutritional Science. Afterwards, he received job offers in major cities but chose to use his experience to help other refugees by working with the British Red Cross and, later, the Refugee Council. He now owns a café in Huddersfield, Mood Café, where he serves homemade Kurdish recipes and coffee.

Interviewer : Ogochukwu Okpoko

Interviewee : Sleman Shwaish

Edited by : Holocaust Centre North

Image credit : Yorkshire Live

Further reading

https://www.cfr.org/article/syrias-civil-war

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35806229

https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-syria

https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/whats-on/food-drink-news/syrian-refugee-opens-new-huddersfield-22157441

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