Syrian refugee running from war finds home in Norwich

Migrants and refugees in a rubber dinghy arriving on the beach at Psalidi near Kos Town, Kos, Greece

Migrants and refugees in a rubber dinghy arriving on the beach at Psalidi near Kos Town, Kos, Greece. Pic: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire - Credit: PA

On July 25, a crowd of people gathered outside Norfolk County Council holding signs lettered with the slogan 'let them in!' The protesters hoped that 50 Syrian refugees would be offered new homes in the county.

One of the campaigners has personal knowledge about exactly how difficult it is to flee your home country. Anas*, who wanted to lend his support to the cause, is a Syrian refugee himself and has been living legally in Norwich for three months.

Anas, 28, worked as a dentist at the University of Damascus for five years before he was forced to leave. In 2015 the Syrian government regime put him on their hit list.

'Being in the medical profession in Syria is very dangerous; I think there were only four or five doctors and dentists in my small home town outside of Damascus.

'The regime thought we might be against them. They wanted to kill me because I helped people, I just wanted to do my job,' Anas said.

He said his decision to flee Syria – leaving his wife and one-year-old son behind – was not one he made overnight.

'Nobody wants to leave their homeland, or their family or their wife; it's not something you choose. No one wants to be a refugee.'

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During his fourth year of dental school at the University of Damascus, in 2011, the tide of Syrian revolution swept through campus. Anas backed his fellow students and the anti-government movement.

'As an educated person, it was my duty to support the protest. But when they bomb your city, you want to do something and you can't,' he said.

It was then that Anas starting thinking of ways to leave Syria. In July, 2015, he made his move. Knowing that his wife and son wouldn't be able to make the dangerous trek, he promised he would arrange a safer, legal route when he was settled.

The part he remembers most vividly about the journey has become an unwavering image of the European refugee crisis: the boat ride in small, plastic dinghies packed with terrified children and adults.

'I wanted to motivate other people on the boat to be strong, but in my heart I wasn't strong. I told them to be still and wait, enough though we didn't know what was ahead,' he said.

Anas had learned English in school and heard there were opportunities in the medical field in Britain, so he made his way here. After being granted a Leave to Remain (a legal immigration status that grants protection for five years), he bounced around refugee camps across the country for months before finding John*.

John, it turned out, was exactly the beacon of hope Anas needed. He had a flat in Norwich with an extra room and had signed up to host a refugee through the website Homes for Syrians.

'Anas is on the books but on his own. I've been following refugee stories in the news for quite a while and thought it would be nice to help someone. Historically, Norwich has a good reputation for housing refugees,' he said.

'Having someone in your home, while their family is in danger back in Syria, it's shocking. The idea of war is abstract but the personal impact it can have on someone like Anas is devastating. You feel for him and people like him,' John said.

Anas met John in Norwich first and then decided to move in. John introduced Anas to the community, who has welcomed him with open arms. 'I've met everyone through John, all of his friends. There are nice people here; it's a great place to live. I feel comfortable and better engaged with English society,' Anas said.

John said: 'There's been a very positive reaction among my friends. People were so friendly and helpful. Four or five offered to help him with his IELTS English lessons.'

Anas is studying for the IELTS exam so he can work or study in the UK. He hopes to find a job as a dental trainee or receive a scholarship for a masters programme in dentistry.

Not every day for Anas is easy, though.

'I want to continue with my dream of dentistry but there are so many obstacles in the way. It's hard to make something out of nothing.

'I'm trying to find a way to bring over my wife and baby. Sometimes I can't sleep at night, it's very difficult. Bombs are falling in Syria all the time, there's a lack of money and food. I just want to bring them over safely,' he said.

But amazingly, while Anas is worrying about his own family, he's also worrying about others.

Anas has visited local organisations that offer aid and programmes for refugees, including the Norwich Red Cross branch, Sanctuary Norfolk and New Routes, to see what he can do to help the 50 Syrians who will be brought to the area.

With only a few other Syrian families currently living in Norwich, Anas knows how hard it can be to navigate a new city.

'As Syrian refugees, this is not our fault. I want to teach the new refugees things so they don't have to suffer. I just don't want other people to suffer,' Anas said.

* Surnames in this story have been withheld. Because Anas fled from Syria and his life might still be in danger, he requested that his identity be concealed.

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