“The war has made me strong”: A Syrian mother’s harrowing journey to Britain.

By Anne Czernik

Over the next five years, Britain will re-locate a total of 20 000 refugees living in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The UK has provided around £1 billion in aid to facilitate those living in the surrounding areas but those on the ground say more is needed.  Last month, Britain announced an expansion of the existing Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. VPRS was set up in January 2014 to help the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. Those who are accepted are granted humanitarian protection giving them leave to remain in the UK for five years with full access to employment, benefits, and rights to family reunion. If the refugees do not return to Syria, they may be eligible to apply for settlement but the future for Syrian refugees in Britain remains uncertain.

Asian Sunday talks to Mouna Almawas who was one of the first families to come to the UK under the scheme. She arrived in Britain with her four children, and just a change of clothes. Their future is far from settled but she says, Britain has given her and her children “everything”

Horton Housing (HH) in Bradford is one of a handful of organisations currently providing accommodation and support for Syrian people coming to the UK under the Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS). HH was the first organisation in the country to sign up to the programme in March 2014. Since then, HH has helped to resettle nearly half of Syrian refugees who have entered Britain under the scheme including Mouna Almawas and her family.

Paul Gartland, Chief Executive Officer for HH says” People don’t realise the issues. They are saying we will offer a room. We have recruited staff with the experiences and understanding and who have gone through a similar system themselves. The expectations of the people coming across is not to live in someone’s back bedroom. They want to establish their own home. They are looking to establish themselves in our society.”

Gudrun Carlisle is services manager for Horton Housing and says “One of the things that strikes me about working with Syrian refugees is that they had lives very much like we have. Then there has been this dreadful war and they’ve lost everything. They worked like we did, had cars, went on holiday and the kids have gone to school, and played.  That’s all just gone and that is something we should all learn from. People see refugees as not having a life before that.  Well they did, and often a good quality of life at that. That is something we need to remember.”

For Gudrun, there is one family she will never forget. A little boy who came to Britain with really bad burns. Gudrun says “He’s fine now. If he had been left in Syria, he would have died.”

Mouna with her son

Mouna Almawas with her son Khalid

But he didn’t. His name is Khalid Almawas and he wants to be a doctor.

Until the war, Khalid and his extended family lived on a farm just outside Idlib in Syria amidst olive groves and fruit trees.  His mother Mouna said “It was easy to live there. There was nothing to worry about.” In the evening, friends and family would gather and drink tea on the terrace as the sun set. Like so many girls in her village, Mouna left school at 12 and married at 18. Her husband was a plasterer. Every week, Mouna’s family and her brothers gathered for a shared breakfast or a lunch, and neighbours would join them. Life was simple and good. Mouna says “I love my country but my children didn’t see anything of how beautiful life was before the fighting”

It was 3 December 2011 when the trouble came to Mouna’s village. She said “There was fighting in the village. The army came to the house and if the person they wanted wasn’t there, they would take anyone, your wife, your daughter, even the women.”

Mouna said that women were murdered, or disfigured and sent back to their family. She said “Some of the women, they came back. The soldiers had sex with them. The women stayed for a long time, like a prison and when they came back they said they would sleep with me, use me. When the women came back, they wished they were dead.”

Like many men from the village, Mouna’s husband was forced to flee for his life. He went to Lebanon to find a job, waiting on his family to join him. Idlib was a rebel stronghold, where people wanted change and freedom from the Syrian regime.

Mouna said “Some houses were destroyed. My house is destroyed. The army came and hit the people, told them the plans and dropped the bombs on the village. When I left my house, I took the three children” In the chaos, she forgot the little one. She said “I got far away and remembered. I had to go back. The child was hiding under the sofa and there was the sound of machine fire everywhere. He was two years old. We walked to find any transport and travelled an illegal way to Lebanon. The way to Lebanon is very hard to pass. If you walk on the road, there are collections and checkpoints and the army will come”

It took Mouna and her family ten days to walk to Lebanon going from one village to another staying as far as possible from the main routes.  When they eventually arrived at the Syrian border, the light was beginning to fade.  She said “I was pregnant. I walked with the little one on my shoulder, holding the other children’s hands.” In the darkness, as the frightened family stumbled over the rocky terrain, she fell.

When she arrived in Lebanon, the baby was dead.

Her husband had managed to obtain work, and a one room apartment. The family of six struggled to pay the rent and work was scarce. In Lebanon, the influx of refugees had increased rents and property was in demand. Mouna said “The prices have all gone up and they blame the Syrians. Food has gone up and everything is very expensive so they blame the Syrians.”

Mouna said “It was hard to make money. There wasn’t work for everyone. My son, Khalid was about 11 and he began working at a garage. On 4 September 2013, his boss said I’m going. I’ll be back later to give you your money. Khalid had been using petrol to clean machinery and some men turned up. They said you are a Syrian. You are like a dog, you shouldn’t come here, we should kill you. They lit a rag and threw it at Khalid.  He was covered in petrol and went on fire. They just left him to burn”

As smoke poured out of the garage, some people found the boy. In an attempt to stop the fire, they reacted quickly pouring a nearby bucket of water over him. It dowsed the flames but it made matters worse. The water contained a cleaning agent used to mop floors.

At the hospital, the boy was refused treatment. Mouna said “The doctor said we can’t help him because he is Syrian. No-one can treat you here because you are Syrian.” The series of operations that Khalid needed to save his legs cost $50 000.

For three months, Mouna tried to prevent infection setting in but gradually the burns festered and the house was filled with the smell of the boy’s rotting flesh.

She tried to return to Syria to see if she could obtain treatment but her papers were out of date. At the checkpoint, Mouna and Khalid were turned away. She had to return to Beirut and have her card renewed. The official told her to go back in 15 days. She didn’t think Khalid had that long.

People had told her “Maybe the Red Cross will help your child.” She carried him to the makeshift injuries unit and was devastated when the doctor told her that her son’s legs needed amputation.

In the room preparing for the operation, Mouna screamed and said “I couldn’t leave him like that. He might die but he would die whole. The doctor said she needed to decide. I said, no, I need to take him home.”

People started hearing about Khalid. From Germany, Turkey, Britain, all over and they came to her house and saw how the family was living. There was a doctor from Syria. He took photographs of Khalid and said he would try hard. He said he would show the photographs and maybe someone would come.

Eventually, a doctor from Palestine living in the US said he would do the operation in Lebanon. By this time, Khalid could not walk or stand. He couldn’t straighten his legs. The operation to restore mobility to the legs began at 8am and went on for over 8 hours.

Whilst Khalid was in the hospital, Mouna received a call.

Whilst she had been caring for her son, the family had been evicted. She begged the landlord for a few weeks grace, but he said no. Her children were on the street and she walked to buy the blood needed for Khalid’s operation. When someone from the UN came and asked what can we do for you, she started shouting.

The family were accepted onto the VPRS.

When Khalid could be discharged, Mouna had just enough money to get to the airport. She said “We slept on the beach. It’s a good thing it’s warm in Lebanon.” By chance they met a doctor that had treated Khalid. The doctor contacted the UN, booked a hotel for the family and a car to take them to the airport. The next day Mouna and her family went to the UK to start the next chapter in their lives.

Mouna was petrified. She said “It was a new country. How can I live here with my children but this country has everything I’m looking for, a safe place for my children, education and people just live together. Nobody says anything about your religions. I’m a single mum and it’s not easy to live in Syria as a single mum. Here I can get all my rights for my children. I’ve made many friends and it’s like I’ve known them for a long time. I have been looking to make a normal life with my children and I can”

In time, she hopes to open a shop selling Syrian food.  She says “We will give back to this country because it’s given me everything. I will make sure my children take the right way for this country.”

The war has changed her and Mouna said “The war has made me strong and it’s given me strength. I’ve got many troubles during this time and I have to be strong. I couldn’t deal with these things before and the war has given me the power to just carry on. I had to be strong. I had to show my children I am strong”

Mouna Almawas and family

Mouna Almawas and family

Looking at her children laughing and joking in the modest terraced house in the middle of Bradford,  remarkable how far this family has come in the 15 months that they have been in the UK. Khalid is sick of being asked about his experiences and what he wants to do with his new life. For now, he just wants to forget. He hopes that one day all children will be kept safe and far away from the ravages of war.

But that’s going to take a bit more than hope to achieve that.

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