To mark the Refugee Week 2015 we are publishing a series of excellent articles by students taking an MA in International Journalism at City University. We are very grateful to students for sharing their work and to Professor John Owen for inspiring and guiding them to take up the challenge of telling refugee and migrants’ stories at the highest professional standards.
Peter Lind is an international journalist previously working in Uganda, Nepal, United States and Denmark. He worked on news programmes, debates on social issues and several articles on immigration were published by The Huffington Post. He is currently based in East London.
Last year, the UK government agreed to take the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, including survivors of torture and violence. A year after agreeing to do so, the government has resettled 143 Syrian refugees. Who are the Syrians fleeing, and what are they fleeing from? This is Khaled´s story, leaving his family, escaping his own country. Fleeing a country he used to love, a story about the regime of Syria and the methods used by it.
Making a new bed
We meet on a rainy day in a café in West London, as Khaled (not his real name) is ashamed of his room, or rather his bed.
Khaled sits down in what appears to be an awkward position, his back against the wall. Half sitting, half lying. It is how he sat in his cell in Damascus. During a total of 12 months, locked up in a cell too small to lie down in, and not high enough to stand up, Khaled was tortured by the Syrian Security forces.
Khaled´s crime – Writing a critical article about the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.
Khaled was picked up one morning in 2009 at four am, while sleeping in the house he shared with his mother and sister. 10 or more officials blindfolded and handcuffed him, placed him in the back of a van and beat him, breaking his nose, until they arrived at the underground prison, where Khaled was held for the following six months.
The Syrian security officials wanted to know which western government he was working for, and swore to him that they would make him forget his own name, while finding out. “I thought; I am never going to get out, they will kill me, they will kill my family, I blamed myself. In those moments, I got close to God, praying was all I could do. I wasn´t working for anyone but Syria. I didn´t write the articles to get famous, I did it because I wanted to tell people about the things going on”. After six months of his first detainment, Khaled was released. His family had made bail.
A new beginning, a familiar outcome
In 2012, at the beginning of the revolution in Syria, Khaled had got a job working for a magazine outside of Damascus. One day, filming on the streets of Raqqah, Syrian security officials approached him. In full daylight, he was once again blindfolded, thrown into the back of a car, and driven to a new underground prison. This time though, the room he was placed in was filled to the brim. Detainees, living and dead, filled the halls and rooms of the prison.
“It felt like death in there, pure death. There were dead people lying on the floor. But they brought people in everyday. For two months, the capacity increased. But sometimes, the guards would come and cry out a name, and you would be taken away for interrogation.” Khaled explains how the guards´ preferred torture measures including placing the detainee on a car tire, hands and feet cuffed, while beating the detainee.
“The worst one is the bed. You lie on your stomach, strapped to the bed. Then, they raise one end of the bed, the one where your legs are, until your back is about to break.” Khaled explains while shifting in his seat. Tears come to his eyes, he can´t continue and we take a break. It suddenly occurs to me that the reason why Khaled does not want us to see his room is the bed he sleeps on. He later explains to me that he has nightmares which leads to continence problems. Explaining why he can´t mention the Arab word sariir, meaning bed, without tears pressing on his eyelids.
Surviving torture, by going mad
For six months, Khaled endured living hell before he cracked. “I was thumping my head into the wall, I had completely lost it.”. Khaled had become too much trouble for his guards, and he was released. Khaled had a very hard time believing it. When being transferred in order to get his release form, he was in complete denial. “I thought I was going to be killed.” Khaled was in fact released, in the middle of nowhere. He was lucky and caught a ride from an anti-government Syrian. When talking about it, Khaled smiles and says: “If it was not for him, we would not be sitting here in London. I feel very lucky”.
Khaled got to a friend’s house outside Damascus. He had been banned from the Syrian journalist organization been put on a list of people not allowed to leave the country. He was released, but was now a captive in his own country. Broken down mentally, with several open wounds all over his body. Luckily, Khaled had a friend who arranged for him to escape to Lebanon, into Turkey, where he could get on a plane to London.
“My friend had told me, when the plane takes off, you are safe. I was salvaged, but I left everything. My life is in Syria. Now I was leaving the country I love.” Khaled arrived in London, but he still felt unsafe. If immigration were to reject him, it would mean being deported back to Syria to certain death. He waited for everyone to go through immigration, and when there was no one left but him in the arrival hall, he walked up to the counter, and said ”I want to seek for asylum”.
Khaled was put in a room for two days with immigration officers, interpreters and diplomats questioning him. He wasn’t eating, how could he be sure he was allowed to? Breaking the rules in the underground prison in Syria meant torture. After two days, Khaled was granted political asylum.
In Syria, government officials are looking for him. He can´t communicate directly with his family, but he has contact with some friends in various parts of Syria. Coming to London has not been easy. “London is like a desert to me. I don´t speak the language, I don´t have any contacts. I am alone. Like in a desert, but filled with people around me.”
Britain is like a caring mother to me
If you were to fill up a bus with Syrian refugees who have been offered resettlement by the UK, you would fail. For one refugee who is now safe in the UK, life is starting over. Khaled has to build a life here, starting from rock bottom. With mental health issues as a result of torture, barely any language skills, and no network, it is surprising how mild-hearted and optimistic Khaled is concerning the future.
How refugees express gratitude, I would not know. How refugees are expected to express gratitude, I do not know either. I asked Khaled if he would answer the questioned “Should we expect Syrian asylum seekers to be grateful?”
“I am lost here, my life is in Syria. I was forced to leave. But Britain has been like a caring mother to me, and has given me everything. Britain has given me rights again, Britain is educating me, I am grateful.”.
Khaled pushes himself up off the bench, almost falling, but he manages to stay on one foot, stabilizing a second later with the other. Apparently, that is his way of getting up from his awkward position. A physical reminder of his time spent in small confinements, interrogation rooms, tires and torture beds.
Before leaving Khaled, I thank him; we shake hands, his eyes still watery and irritated. He is grateful that I am willing to tell his story.
The author carried out the interview with Khaled on November 24th 2014. The interview was conducted in Arabic, with the help of a native Arabic interpreter. Khaled is not the real name of the interviewee. For his and his family´s security, the author has changed the name. The author knows Khaled´s real name.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Forum. For re-publishing and other inquires please contact Peter Lind directly firstname.lastname@example.org phone: 07 518 518 102