Beyond the label “refugee”: A conversation with Hadi from Syria

Have you ever wanted to understand what the idea “refugee” means, to understand the person behind this label? In early March, the Refugee and Migrant Rights Team at Amnesty International had a chat with a young man from Syria who is living in the UK. He had cycled over from the flat he shares with his parents in North London, and we chatted in a coffee shop in Finsbury Park. He told us about the difficult journey from his homeland to the UK, the time he nearly got deported from Turkey to Syria, his recommendations to European leaders, and his hopes and plans for the future. He also explains what he thinks of the term “refugee.” Because he still has family in Aleppo, for their safety he uses the name Hadi here.

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Hadi and I am 23 years old. I am from Syria – from Aleppo. I entered Turkey in 2015 and I have been in the UK since December 2017. I came with my mother and father.

2. What was life like in Turkey?

It was extremely difficult.

At first I lived with my parents in Antakya, a small city in the south. Life there was very difficult. My dad was very sick because he had been injured in Syria. We had to live near the hospital. I worked for a Syrian shop, working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, earning a very low salary which had to support me and my parents. My mum was looking after my dad so she wasn’t working, and my dad could not work because he was ill. The shop was 1 hour from my house, so I had to walk 2 hours each day – I could not afford to take the bus. I was young – just a teenager.

After a couple months in Antakya, the police came to the shop where I was working. They said we were breaking the law because we were selling Syrian food. They couldn’t find the manager of the shop, so they took me instead and put me in detention. It was a horrible experience. They shouldn’t have put me there. The next morning, the police said: “Prepare yourself, we’re going to deport you.” They forced me to sign a “voluntary return” paper saying that I wanted to go back to Syria – if I didn’t sign, they told me I would have to stay locked up. On the way to the border, the officer said to the people on the bus: “If you give me money, I won’t deport you.” The police took 3,500 Turkish Lira (about £500) from us, then they left us at the motorway, on the Turkish side of the border.

I travelled back to Antakya, stayed a week, then went to Istanbul. My parents stayed in Antakya because it is less expensive. I stayed in Istanbul for 2 years – it was the first time I had lived alone, and it was very difficult.

I worked in a clothes factory, 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. When I first started, I worked 15 days in a row without seeing the sun, because the factory was underground. It was like in the movies: when people come out of prison, their eyes hurt – it was the same for me. It was a very hard experience.

3. Why are people trying to get to Greece? Why don’t people just stay in Turkey?

Wherever Syrians go in Turkey – their jobs, to the hospital, or just walking down the street – they are scared. People are leaving because they are scared, and they want to feel safe. Syrian people are suffering from how the police treat them. We are scared to walk in the streets. We are scared of everything. Another big problem in Turkey is the housing – many people refuse to rent apartments to Syrians, or if they do, they will make the rents completely unaffordable.

When Syrian people cross from Turkey to Greece, they don’t want money – they just want hope, they just want acceptance. They want to live in a country where people don’t look at them as second-class citizens. We are all equal.

People are also leaving because of their children. They want their children to grow up safely, to be educated, to choose the person they want to marry – not just stay in the house, start work at 10 years old, and be forced to marry very young.

4. What recommendations would you give to European leaders?

Turkey is doing a lot of human rights violations, but at the same time European countries do not do enough for refugees. They are just giving money to Turkey to keep us out, as if we are a disease. European countries should take action to address human rights violations in Turkey. They should show Syrian people that they care about them. Syrian people are suffering. They don’t have anywhere to go – they have to stay in Turkey. I know there must be a lot of things European countries can do. I don’t know all the specifics – I am sure that governments know better than me. The problem is they don’t want to take action.

5. How did you and your family make it to the UK?

My parents heard about an opportunity to go to Canada in a government resettlement programme, so my dad put our names. At first we were told we couldn’t register, but then at the last minute they allowed us to apply. They called us 3 months later, and did a health check for all of us. Then they called us 9 months after that and did another health check. Then 6 months later they did a final health check. Then 3 months after that, they told us we would be leaving in late 2017. It turns out that Canada was no longer an option, and instead we were given a choice between the US and UK. My mum chose the UK for us. We were put in a hotel for several days while we waited for our flight. During that time we had to use the back entrance instead of the regular hotel entrance, and eat in the place where the staff eat – we were not allowed to eat in the hotel restaurant.

6. How is life different in the UK, compared to Turkey?

It’s much better – it’s so different from Turkey. When I walk in the street, I feel normal – like anyone else. It’s not heaven – there is racism. But it is not comparable to Turkey. In Turkey you will work very hard and not make any money. Here you have to study hard, but it’s good because you’re doing it for yourself. I’ve learned English. You can improve yourself. I’m helping other people, and this is the most important thing. In Turkey you see people suffering, but you can’t help them. Here you can give people advice. The other difference is that in Turkey, I was working all the time to support my parents, but here I have more freedom.

7. Was there anything you were worried about, moving to the UK?

When my mum told me we were travelling to the UK, I searched on YouTube, and I saw a lot of reports about racism and Islamophobia. I was scared. I was worried we would be put in a closed community with only refugees, and we wouldn’t be able to integrate. So now I’m very happy to live in a neighbourhood where my neighbours are not just Arab people – there are different kinds of people, and they are friendly with us.

8. What is the hardest part about living in the UK?

The most difficult thing at first was the language. It’s hard to integrate without that. Now because my English is better, there is nothing difficult in life. Refugees and citizens have equal opportunities. Maybe I won’t be able to get a good job at first, but if I work hard, then I will be able to achieve this. I speak with my friends and they tell me that they started with jobs like cleaning, or working in shops – but then later they worked hard and became teachers.

9. What are your plans and hopes for the future?

If I was in Turkey, I would not be able to have a plan. At the end of each day I would need to start work at 8am, and then finish at 3am. I would not be able to think about the future.

Now that I am in the UK, I am planning to complete my studies – I want to study social sciences. In Syria, I had to leave school when I was 11 years old.

I also want to travel. I want to do volunteer work in Africa. I want to show the world that Arab people also do this kind of work. Most of my friends here in the UK are from African countries – I find that they are friendly and generous. I want to see their culture. I also want to travel to Greece to support Syrian people there.

10. What questions do you wish people would ask you?

Actually, there are some questions I wish they wouldn’t ask me! The worst are: “Why are you here?” and “How is life in Syria?”

Some people even ask me: “Why do you think we are responsible for you?” It’s not a question of responsibility. They are human and I am human like them. When I see people who are homeless or hungry, I feel sad about them.

We are tired of this word “refugee.” I wish to present myself as a human. I wish people would see me as a human, not as a refugee – as a normal person like them. I have hopes, I have dreams.