'Ipswich feels like home' - how town gave new life to Syrian refugees
- Credit: ABACA/Press Association Images
They fled the most heartbreaking horrors of war imaginable - from being shot and seeing their homes destroyed, to family members being killed or tortured.
But these refugees said fleeing to Ipswich and Suffolk ensured they could begin a new life - as the county helped them to "pick up the pieces of their shattered lives" after the trauma of civil war.
Since its outbreak in 2011, the Syrian conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than half the country's population to flee their homes.
It created the world's largest refugee crisis, with 6.6million Syrians forced to escape their homeland after experiencing the scars of war on a daily basis.
Alongside countries around the world, the UK has helped 20,000 refugees to rebuild their lives in Britain under the government's Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
Public sector leaders in Suffolk unanimously agreed to help, with the first Syrian refugees arriving in the county in March 2016.
Since then, more than 125 Syrian refugees have started new lives in Suffolk - with Suffolk Refugee Support (SRS) greeting families on arrival, helping them to learn English, find work, build their own businesses and settle into life in a foreign country.
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With charity Anglia Care Trust providing housing support, a spokesman from SRS said: "We see people making great efforts to move on and integrate in their new lives - finding jobs, making friends, getting volunteer of the year awards."
The spokesman added: "None ever imagined they would be forced to leave their country or be separated from family members, and adjusting to life here can be a real shock.
"People have described to us how it’s like being born for a second time and having to learn everything again from scratch.
"Many have experienced terrible things and live with the scars of war and trauma on a daily basis.
"They have been shot, had their homes destroyed, witnessed the horrific effects of barrel bombs and had family members killed, tortured or go missing.
"Nearly all have family and friends scattered across the globe and loved ones still in danger in Syria, with little prospect of seeing them again.
"This separation can be the hardest thing to bear, and the pandemic has only made it worse.
"Despite this, we see people making great efforts to move on and integrate in their new lives."
The first protests in Syria took place just 200metres away from where Amer lived in Daraa Al-Balad, while he was working in the family business and studying law.
"I will never forget the first day until the end of my life," he said.
"My house was close to the place of the demonstration that went out in Daraa Al-Balad.
"When I was on my way there, the shooting started very terribly.
"For the first time in my life, I heard this amount of gunfire.
"I didn't know what will come next. I ran as fast as I could, and the shooting still took place, resulting in two dead and more than 10 wounded.
"From this moment on, I realised that we would lose a lot and I decided that I would join the protesters until the end.
"In these days ten years ago, I can't forget the squares of demonstrations and demonstrators and their voices that comfort you and tell you that these people will not back down.
"In addition to the sound of warplanes and bombing, and the smell of death everywhere, the scenes of the wounded, the dead, the body parts, I saw a lot of pain that will take me so many years to try and forget.
"Whatever you say, it is very hard to say what I feel."
Amer volunteered for the White Helmets emergency rescue team, who have saved tens of thousands of lives during the conflict.
He resettled in the UK in 2018.
Since arriving in Ipswich, he has volunteered with Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service.
"Ipswich is a beautiful, quiet and family-friendly place which is not crowded like the major cities," he said.
"But to be honest, I feel very lonely. I tried to cope with the current situation, but it is very difficult to live in a place where you feel a stranger.
"My hope is to return to my country, my family and my friends."
Shireen’s family were the first to arrive in Suffolk under the refugee resettlement programme five years ago, in March 2016.
Having had her education interrupted for five years, she has since studied hard, passed exams and got a job in a pharmacy in Ipswich.
Today, she is studying on a highly-regarded pharmacy course at the University of Reading.
"Before the war, I lived a safe life with my family," she said.
"I was a student going to school, I had lots of friends and all my brothers near to support me.
"I had no clue that I would lose any member of my family or live so far from them.
"I remember I was revising for my exams at night to the sound of scary bombs and fights, but I thought it is far from us.
"At the beginning, I thought the war will be for a few months maximum - but here we are. It has gone 10 years and no improvement at all.
"It is hard to talk about memories, as there is always that horrible feeling when we were forced to leave our home and knowing that going back could be impossible - when we had to choose between being at our home and dying or becoming refugees.
"Unfortunately, the picture of people on the floor dying in their blood, the children crying and running in the street not knowing where to go and lots more painful memories will never be forgotten."
Shireen said two moments changed her life - when she left home, realising she may never be able to return, and when she was told she had been accepted for resettlement in the UK.
She said she felt "scared and insecure" when she left home with her mother in 2011and that she did not know much about Ipswich.
"All I knew and really cared about was that I would have a safe life and a chance to finish my education," she said.
"When we arrived, I really had mixed feelings – happy and curious about my new life and how it will be, while scared at not to be able to integrate and communicate with people here.
"Maybe it is strange to say I am lucky after everything I went through, but yes - I feel lucky to be here and meeting such incredible people from Suffolk Refugee Support that made me feel welcomed and loved.
"For someone like me, feeling welcomed and accepted is the key to continue in life.
"Being called a refugee is a very big challenge. I always had to prove to others that I am like them, the only difference is that I had to leave my country to live.
"'Refugee' is a word that can change your life completely. Everything you are doing, you have to prove to people that you are a good person willing to do only good things.
"If you are a refugee wearing a hijab, this makes it even more challenging as you always seem different.
"I am proud of myself for not giving up. I feel that I am a new person.
"Everything changed in my life. I learnt how to be responsible, got my first job, started studying what I love. I can say my life now is a normal life.
"These 10 years were a big challenge for me.
"I lost my childhood suddenly and had to deal with the challenges in my life as an adult where I should’ve played with other children, but I am grateful for everything I learnt and who I became."
With many of her relatives now living in different parts of the world, Shireen hopes that one day she can be reunited with her brothers and her family.
However, she said: "Ipswich feels like home. It is the place where I began my new life and learned so much. It means so much to me."
Before the war, Khaled owned a big construction company worth roughly £1million in Darayya with his brothers.
"We lived a very comfortable life," he said.
All that changed after 2011, when 500 people were killed in a massacre in Darayya and Khaled's house was hit by a rocket.
His family moved to another city, where they had a villa - but that city came under attack as well and they were not allowed to return to Darayya.
"This was when we realised we wouldn’t be able to live in Syria any more," he said.
Tragically, he had to leave two of his sons behind, as they were in the army - one of whom he has not heard anything about since 2013, while the other was killed by an electric shock after leaving the military.
Khaled and his family spent four years in Egypt but said: "The situation was not good there," with that country also seeing uprisings from 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.
They were given the chance to settle in the UK and arrived in 2017, with three of Khaled's children being educated in Ipswich.
"We didn’t know much about the UK, but we thought it is a good country," he said.
"I have suffered a lot mentally and physically, with a lot of medical problems, but things are improving since we moved here.
"Everybody is nice here. My only issue is communicating with people.
"I used to live a comfortable life, I didn’t need to ask anyone for help or support to live.
"The regime in Syria took everything, destroyed everything. Everybody needs to know what the Syrian regime did to their own people."
Khaled, who still has son in Lebanon and a daughter in Egypt, said his "biggest hope is to be reunited with all my children".
Half of Heya's life has been dominated by war, after her home city of Homs was largely destroyed during the conflict.
Now aged 20, she came to the UK with her family under the refugee resettlement programme in 2018.
She said leaving Syria was "like splitting the soul from the body" but that it was the only option, because: "If we had chosen to stay in Syria at that time, we would either have died of hunger, of war or under torture at merciless hands.
"Despite the horrible feelings of leaving, we left.
She added: "Syria was a piece of paradise on the earth. Still, it is this in my heart.
"Before the war started, Syrians had stable lives where they live but don’t speak up. No expression of feelings or viewpoints, an absence of democracy and the presence of dictatorship.
"I remember my first day at school when my parents told me not to say anything political even when I’m in my own room, because walls have ears!
"My life completely changed after the war. I lost friends, relatives and neighbours. We lost everything our parents spent their lives working to build.
"When I first arrived in Ipswich, I asked myself: 'Am I on a different continent? Am I that far a distance from Syria?'
"It was such a harsh period of time when I couldn’t believe what happened. The only thing I was thinking of is that I’m here to seek out a new and safer life.
"Many, myself included, always try to think of the positive side where we see the advantages of being on different land.
"The main challenge for me was understanding the culture and how to deal with things.
"The idea of making new friends wasn’t easy because carrying on my education and blending in with the new life were my top priorities, so I didn’t offer myself the time to speak with my classmates and engage with them. That made some of them make fun of me and call me the nerd. "
Heya is currently completing an Access to Higher Education diploma in science.
Her plan is to apply for university and pursue a career in dentistry or medicine.
But she also says: "My hope for the future is to see the happiness in the eyes of Syria’s children and the victory of truth and revolution.
"My hope is to go back to Syria and rebuild from the ashes, although we will never be able to revive the souls exhausted by war and stolen from us.
"But being successful and diligent is what I always work to be. I believe in my dream and that there is something inside me greater than any obstacle. "