The UK’s warm welcome transforms life for Syrian refugees

By Khairunissa Dhala from Amnesty's refugee and migrants team

Having lost their home while battling serious illness, a family of refugees from Syria has started a new, peaceful life after being resettled in the UK.

“We were counting the seconds until we could come here,” says Walid, a 38-year-old father of three from Syria now living in Bradford, a city in northern England.

“The door was completely closed in front of us before,” he says. “With cancer eating away at me, our daughter’s medical situation and having had to borrow US$5,000 for treatment, we felt hopeless and desperate.

“In this darkness there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel: we were going to the UK. We were really happy and delighted.”

Walid and his wife Esa’af, aged 28, were forced to flee from Syria to Lebanon in 2012 with their daughters Rasha, now aged 13, Rachel, eight, and Hala, three. “The army destroyed our village,” they explain. “We didn’t have a chance to go back.”

The next two years were very tough. Walid wasn’t able to work anymore, having suffered from sarcoma, a form of cancer, since 2011 – almost as long as their country’s conflict has raged.

And Rachel, who was born with a hole in the heart, needed constant medical care.

‘Nothing is more difficult than migrating.’

Sitting in their bright new home, the family’s happiness shines through. They are still together, and they are safe. But it is impossible to forget what they’ve lived through.

“There is nothing more difficult than migrating,” says Walid. Dealing with serious medical problems, as well as simply surviving as refugees, was a double burden.

“Because medical care is so expensive in Lebanon, Walid used to go to peaceful areas of Syria to get treatment once a month,” says Esa’af. But then he was referred for treatment in the war-torn capital, Damascus.

The hospital was close to an area of fighting,” says Walid. He was treated there for a year. “The hospital was often shelled - we used to hide under the beds. People were screaming.”

My only thoughts were: “Will I make it home to see my family this time?”

I was supposed to see a doctor again after three months,” he continues, “but I couldn’t go back because the hospital had been destroyed. After six months I felt that the tumour had come back. A doctor in Lebanon told me to complete another course of chemotherapy. But it was too expensive.”

We needed help,” says Esa’af. After several interviews with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, that all-important phone call finally came: the family had been accepted for so-called humanitarian admission to the UK. They finally stepped off the plane in Manchester on 20 May 2014.

In a happy moment in their new home town of Bradford, UK, eight-year-old Rachel hugs her dad, Walid. © Amnesty International

Smiles and a warm welcome

Speaking about the past isn’t easy: “We have spoken so much of tragedy today it’s made me feel like crying,” says Walid. “Let’s talk about our much happier life now instead.”

“When we arrived, we stayed the first night at a hotel,” he continues. “I asked for the manager and was surprised it was the same person who served us food and met us at the airport. He was extremely modest. 

“The next day they brought us to this house. They left us food for a week, and bedding – everything was included. The nicest thing is that they had very warm smiles - it makes you feel very welcome.”

After Walid finally got the medical care he so badly needed, the family suffered another blow: “A doctor who specializes in tumours said I would have to have my leg amputated [below the knee].”

“It was very difficult,” says Esa’af, “but we believe in destiny and luck. There’s a saying in Arabic: “You might hate something, but it’s still good for you.”

The future is better here than in my country.
Rasha, aged 13

After everything this family has been through, the dust has finally started to settle. Their children are thriving, finally able to enjoy a normal, peaceful childhood - especially the opportunity to go to school.

“We really admire the education system here,” says Walid, “and how they treat children.”

Rachel proudly shows off photos of her classmates. “I like school,” she says. “My teacher is very nice and kind to me. I have three best friends, and at Christmas time Santa came and gave us presents.”

Her older sister Rasha recently started studying Childcare, Psychology, English and Maths at secondary school, learning English from a new friend.

“At the beginning I didn’t like Bradford and wanted to go back to Lebanon, but it’s better here,” she reflects. “The future is better here than in my country.”

Right now, over 4 million refugees from Syria are sheltering in just five countries in the nearby region. Amnesty is calling for 400,000 of them - those the UNHCR considers to be the most vulnerable - to be resettled in wealthy countries by the end of 2016. Resettlement (and other forms of humanitarian admission) is a lifeline open to the world’s most vulnerable refugees, including people with serious medical conditions. By the end of 2017, we estimate that 1.45 million people worldwide will need resettlement.

Update: Sadly, Amnesty International  has learned that nearly a year after this article was published Walid passed away in Bradford on 12 November 2016.