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Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
# journey from hell
Meet the Syrian refugee who travelled for 55 days to get from Aleppo to a new life in the UK
Ahmad Al-Rashid crossed through Syria, Turkey, Greece, France, and Germany before finally reaching his goal.

7 Ahmad Al-Rashid Ahmad Al-Rashid

AHMAD AL-RASHID, A 26-year-old from Aleppo living in Buckinghamshire, is one of 5,000 Syrian refugees who have settled in the UK since being displaced by the on-going civil war.

In September 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that Britain would “live up to its moral responsibility” and take 20,000 more Syrian refugees from camps on the borders of Syria by 2020.

However, a Home Affairs Committee report released on 4 August 2016 said that it is “unlikely” that Britain will meet this target. Between September 2015 and March 2016, only 1,602 Syrian refugees have been resettled, according to the report.

Al-Rashid is not included in this number as he arrived in the UK illegally in July 2015, on the back of a lorry at the end of a gruelling 55-day journey from Aleppo to Hull.

Business Insider spoke to Al-Rashid about what it’s like to be part of Britain’s tiny community of Syrian refugees.

2 Ahmad Al-Rashid Ahmad Al-Rashid

Before the war in Syria, Al-Rashid was an English Literature student at the University of Aleppo.

“Life was quite peaceful,” he told Business Insider. “I was a young man enjoying university, life, music, and cinemas.”

But when the war began in 2011, Al-Rashid’s Kurdish identity left him in particular danger. He was at the mercy of government forces, who accused him of being a PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) supporter, and Islamist radicals, who labelled him an infidel.

Al-Rashid campaigned by giving talks against “human rights abuses on both sides”. Friends warned him that this activity made him likely to be attacked. Al-Rashid decided that he had to leave Syria, and his wife and two daughters, in May 2015.

“It was a very difficult decision to take,” he said.

I was already separated from my family because of the conflict. I was on the other side of the country.

3 Ahmad Al-Rashid Ahmad Al-Rashid

Al-Rashid began his journey out of Syria by crossing the Tigris river into Turkey. The border was guarded by the Turkish army, who shone bright lights on the river. People smugglers bribed the Turkish soldiers to turn off these lights for 10 minutes at midnight, allowing a small number of Syrians to successfully cross the border.

To cross the river, Al-Rashid shared a small dinghy with six other refugees. They made it to the Turkish side in seven minutes – just in time to get across before the lights went back on. No one approached them on arrival, and they entered Turkey unquestioned.

Now out of the war zone, Al-Rashid felt a small sense of relief. He travelled to the west coast of Turkey and, choosing one of hundreds of traffickers advertising on Facebook, paid for a seat on a boat to Kos, an island in Greece. He was told that there would be 24 passengers, but when he arrived there were 88.

“Before we set off, it was already leaking,” he said.

We were in the middle of the sea. Half of us were women and children. We got so lucky.

Three hours later, everyone on the dinghy arrived safely in Kos.

“You have to put your faith in smugglers because you don’t have an option,” Al-Rashid explained. “You already know he’s a liar and a criminal, but you just hope that he will be a good person. Plenty of them are bad people.”

4 Ahmad Al-Rashid Ahmad Al-Rashid

From Kos, he boarded a ferry to mainland Greece and then travelled to Athens using money transferred to him by one of his brothers who was still living in Syria. Al-Rashid never carried large quantities of cash during the journey because he was afraid of being robbed. He said he was able to travel around easily within Greece.

In Athens, he bought a fake Bulgarian passport for €4,000 from a “well-known” smuggler, who had queues of refugees stretching outside his office door. When it was Al-Rashid’s turn, the smuggler told him to change his clothes and shave. The smuggler then booked Al-Rashid a plane ticket to Marseille using the fake details.

He made it through passport control smoothly, but while he was waiting in the airport departure lounge, two security officers began double-checking certain passengers’ passports.

“They managed to catch four Syrians,” he said. Al-Rashid said that he could distinguish fellow Syrians just by looking at their faces. Not long after the four refugees had been escorted away, Al-Rashid was approached. “Show me your passport,” a guard said.

Al-Rashid offered his fake document. “I am meeting my girlfriend in France,” he said. “We are celebrating our anniversary. Is there any problem?”

Fortunately, the guard bought his story and wished him “good luck.” As soon as Al-Rashid boarded the plane, he went to the toilet and destroyed his fake passport. The smuggler in Athens told him to do this because if he was found with a fake passport at French passport control, he would likely be deported back to Greece.

However, to Al-Rashid’s great surprise, when he arrived at the airport in Marseille, there was no passport control at all. He was allowed to walk straight through. He was pleased, but regretted discarding the Bulgarian passport so quickly.

Because he speaks English, Al-Rashid had always planned to claim asylum in the UK. Britain’s family reunion rules would also allow him to bring his family over, if he made it. He was only sporadically in contact with his wife and two daughters because internet and phone signal is hard to find in Aleppo.

To get to the UK meant travelling north by train to France’s then largest migrant camp: the Calais Jungle, which has since been demolished. Since the signing of the Touquet agreement in 2003, Brits have been conducting border control checks in France. With a large number of migrants unable to pass through the Calais border, thousands settled in the Jungle, hoping to climb onto the back of lorries, or walk through the Channel Tunnel to enter the UK.

“These were the worst days of my life,” Al-Rashid said of his two weeks in the Calais Jungle. “It was an awful place. I spent everyday chasing cars, lorries, and trucks.”

Two weeks after arriving in Calais, one of many smugglers in the town convinced Al-Rashid to climb into a tanker truck full of flour, with seven other refugees.

After 12 hours, Al-Rashid and the others inside began to suffocate, so they started furiously pounding on the side of the truck. On hearing the noise, the driver – who had no idea that there were refugees inside – stopped to let them out.

“To our surprise, we were near the Italian border,” he said. “I was mad as hell. I went back to Calais covered in flour.” He travelled by train back to Calais, though he didn’t stay long there.

5 Ahmad Al-Rashid Al-Rashid in Paris Ahmad Al-Rashid

Fed up with life in the French port town, Al-Rashid took a train to Brussels. From there he boarded another train to Stuttgart, where one of his brothers lives. In Stuttgart, he snuck into the back of yet another lorry, while its driver had left it unattended. He spent four nights inside the dark, cramped vehicle. Uncertain of the lorry’s destination, he expected it to end up in Sweden or Denmark.

When he got out of the lorry, remarkably, he found that he had travelled by ferry to Hull, in northern England.

Soon after, Al-Rashid approached a police officer, who began questioning him. After explaining his situation to the officer, he was taken to the police station for further questioning.

“Everyone comes from Dover,” the police said. “How on earth did you end up here?”

Al-Rashid told them the truth. Then, the process of applying for asylum in the UK began.

6 Ahmad Al-Rashid Al-Rashid now lives in Buckinghamshire Ahmad Al-Rashid

To become a refugee in the UK, a foreign national has to prove that they are unable to return to their home country because they “fear persecution.” As a Kurd from Aleppo, Al-Rashid’s case was clear. He was granted asylum in the UK in November 2015.

But Al-Rashid was not entitled to free accommodation from the UK government because he was no longer an asylum seeker.

“At that point I didn’t have a National Insurance number, or any money to pay a deposit,” he said.

Fortunately, he found temporary accomodation through Refugees at Home, a small charity that links homeless refugees with volunteer host families who have a spare room. He was contacted by the charity after sharing a Facebook post about needing a place to live, and was put in touch with hosts Timothy and Nina, staying in their home in Epsom, Surrey, for four months.

The day after Al-Rashid moved into Timothy and Nina’s house, on 28 November  2015, his message of thanks for the couple’s “hospitality and care” went viral on Facebook.

7 Ahmad Al-Rashid Ahmad Al-Rashid

In March 2016, less than a year after he left Syria, Al-Rashid’s wife and two daughters were allowed to legally travel to the UK. The UK’s family reunion settlement rules allow partners and children separated from refugees living in the country to obtain residence as well. The family of four now lives together in an apartment in Buckinghamshire.

In September, Al-Rashid will take up a scholarship to study a masters degree in Violence, Conflict, and Development at SOAS University in London. He hopes the degree will give him the knowledge and expertise to help Syria’s redevelopment, once the war is over.

Though he says he has been treated well by British people, he has experienced less generous attitudes on the internet.

“I spend a lot of time online, arguing with people [commenting] on the Daily Mail and The Telegraph,” he said, where people post things like: “‘Bomb these countries, bomb migrants’ dinghies, rape them, don’t let them come to this country, they are taking over this country.’”

Al-Rashid thinks this is “ridiculous”, since “the UK has got the smallest proportion of refugees in comparison to Germany or Turkey, or Lebanon”, where he said “over 30% of the population” is made up of refugees.

8 Ahmad Al-Rashid Al-Rashid with Lord Alf Dubs, a prominent campaigner for refugees Ahmad Al-Rashid

Al-Rashid believes that the reason Britain is not accepting more refugees is because “the country is in political chaos.”

As a result, refugees are suffering. The UK is the fifth greatest, wealthiest nation on earth. It’s a permanent member of the security council and the UN, and yet you are refusing to take the lead.
We’ve got these young people coming. Let’s invest in them, teach them, educate them, so they can help themselves and go back and help Syria. Let’s turn immigration into something positive.

- Will Heilpern

Read: Swooning, yelling, and spitting blood – a sneak peak inside an exorcism school in Latin America

Read: Sitting down with Maser: The man and the artist behind the blue Repeal wall

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