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People MCH LSE Refuge City ATH Refugee Info 003

Get to know the newcomers, activists and volunteers we met in Athens, Berlin and London, as they share their personal experiences of refuge, welcome and the digital city.

Al-Halabi family

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Hadi, Handi & Abu Abdo Al-Halabi*
London, August 2018

The advisor at the Job Centre recommended I volunteer at Poundland. I worked there for two months, then I started volunteering at the Hackney City Farm. Volunteering is good for learning conversational English. I also do an intensive English course three days a week and study IT two nights a week. I feel like I have to be the best possible representation of a refugee so that they continue to support us to come here.

As a Muslim also, I feel like I need to show that I can integrate into this society, to counter Islamophobia. And I do try, very hard. But there are days when I hear some news about Syria, and for a week I feel low and helpless. I wish there was more understanding from the Job Centre, that as determined as a person can be, there are emotional issues we are dealing with, too. As much as refugees want to integrate into the culture, everything is new to us, it’s difficult to let go of everything all at once.

(hostility, London)

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The day after we arrived in London, we showered, got dressed and waited. We expected a support worker or someone to visit, to explain things about the UK, provide us with our address, give us tips on the local area. But evening came, and no one came. We needed bread so I Googled “closest food shop” (in Arabic) on my phone and found Lidl. My father objected, worried that I would get lost. I remember taking £70 with me just to buy bread because I had no understanding of the value of money here. At Lidl, I noticed the self-checkout machines. I had never seen them before so I studied people using it for a while, and then I tried it. It felt like a great accomplishment, I had bought bread and not had to speak to anyone! From then on we would walk together to Lidl and gradually start to explore further. Lidl became our landmark.

(digital lives, London)

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We had to depend on ourselves a lot when we first arrived. We didn’t speak a word of English, and no one visited us for six weeks. The ‘Life in the UK’ book came in the mail six months after we arrived. Eventually, a local NGO sent a support worker, but he was a Syrian, almost new to the UK himself, and he didn’t know much. He had no idea whether I could attend English lessons, and it took me three months before I figured out where and how to register at the college.


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The mobile Internet was too expensive to top up all the time, so we had to be economical. We would memorise the maps so we didn’t have to use Google Maps too much. You can’t get WiFi at home until you have three months of bank statements. So we started going to Wood Green Mall to use the free Internet so we could talk to my sisters. Then the three of us would sit down to watch Arabic series on my mobile phone. This was before we got a television, two months ago. Just in time for the World Cup.

Then, we met a Palestinian woman at Lidl who offered to sign us up for home internet in her name. She even paid for the first month. There are many kind people here, thank God.

(communication rights, London)

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I’m very careful about using the internet for politics. I use proxy servers and tape the camera. I have two Facebook profiles: one I use to connect with family and friends, with my real photo and real name, and another anonymous one that I use to keep up to date with political news from Syria. The regime regularly publishes lists of people confirmed dead, and I always go through them to find out if anyone I know is on them. There are lots of videos on Youtube. You can even find the hospital where my dad was staying, the one that was bombed. You can see videos of people searching through the rubble for survivors.


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I owned a grocery stall in Aleppo, right next to the mosque. As I was arriving to work, there was a father and son just in front of me. I saw with my own eyes the boy being torn to pieces by the bomb, limbs flying. I was awake and conscious, but I couldn’t get up — my leg was behind me, severed from my body. It has been four years and I still remember it, I see it play out in front of my eyes like a film reel. Till this day I thank God a hundred times a day that my son was not with me, that I was alone. Thank God.


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One day we were in the park, and my wife was really struggling to push my wheelchair. A Moroccan lady noticed that we were speaking Arabic, and introduced herself. A few days later she called and told us that her husband and his friends wanted to get me an electric wheelchair so it was easier to get around. It really gave me a new lease on life, and a break for my son and wife.

But I still feel shooting pains in my leg and I just find it so difficult to be happy. I take strong sedatives for the pain, which make me sleep for 14 hours. I feel bored at home, I come here, stroll around for a couple of hours. I appreciate it, the greenery, I like this park… but still, there is something that doesn’t go away. I used to be the one always helping people, and now look at me! I am grateful everyone is so helpful and nice, but the pity is difficult.

(solidarity, loss)

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It breaks my heart, the thought of never seeing my daughters again.. Because they are still in Syria, instead of Jordan or Turkey or Lebanon, it’s impossible to bring them here. And if they ever come for a visit, we need to show an annual income of at least £20,000. We can’t stop thinking about them, about how difficult life is for them…. When we talk to them in Syria we stick to questions like ‘how are you? How is your health?’ Nothing personal. All the major telecommunications companies in Syria belong to friends or relatives of Al-Assad. And we stop ourselves from sending photos of nice things, our new life, our home, the market, things I’m cooking. They don’t have access to everything we do, food there is scarce and expensive. So, we are continuously thinking about what to share, and what to hold back, in case it’s insensitive.

(digital lives)

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I have a temporary tattoo of Amnesty’s symbol, the bleeding candle, because I feel it is a symbol for refugees and injustice. I like how advanced animal rights are in the UK, and women’s rights. I like that it is acceptable for people to oppose the government, that I can have an opinion, that I don’t have to suppress my thoughts. I keep on thinking about those parents grieving dead children. And worse, parents whose children are missing, who are wondering day and night where their children are, whether they have been killed or are in prison. And then I feel terrible for complaining about little things in life, saying I don’t like this or that. There are Syrians like me and all they want is a day without torture, or even a proper bite to eat. They cannot speak, even if they wanted to, they cannot say the things I’m telling you. My words can’t change this reality, but I must still say them.


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Do you know the poet Nizar Qabbani? He was Syrian, from Damascus, and was exiled in London. He has this poem — ‘Writings on the Wall of Exile’ — which reminds me that we were always living in exile in our own country, and that at least this, the UK, is an exile we choose.


* Names are pseudonyms

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