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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.

Leila & family

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Owais, Leila, Lamar and Asmaa
Haringey, London, July 2018

On New Year’s Eve, after we’d only been here a few weeks, there were fireworks going off. You should have seen the children, they were all shrieking — they thought they were bombs. I had to explain these were for celebrations, not war.

I am happy to share with you anything you want to know. But our story is a sad one. There is a lot of misery, a lot of pain. The war in Syria and everything we saw there... Owais was maybe 8 when his elder brother died right next to him from a bomb. Then, when we ran to Lebanon, what we had to face there… it’s been a very hard journey.


Leila family mum2
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Soon after arriving in Lebanon, my sister got diagnosed with cancer. The next few months were a blur of appointments, going from one hospital to another, begging for treatment. To go through that when you have no money.... The UNHCR said that France was willing to re-settle my sister and her children, but she refused to go without me. So then they finally said the UK accepted to re-settle all of us. We were so happy, I can’t explain it.

But she never made it here, she died on 15th September. We buried her in Lebanon, may her soul rest in peace. That’s her photo over there. She had the face of an angel, didn’t she? She was always so stylish, and slim, even after four children.

* Photos courtesy of Leila


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Our home in Lebanon was one room. It was smaller than this room, like a small box. It was basically our kitchen and our bedroom. My mother used to keep putting a plate out for my brother on the table. We would ask her, ‘Mama, why this plate?’ She kept forgetting that he had died.


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The day we arrived in the UK, it was like going to heaven. Life is difficult here, but it’s a difficult heaven! We have no other option, so we are trying to build a life, a home. We have nothing to go back to in Syria. Our house is no longer standing, there are no family members left. This is the first time we’ve had a proper home since leaving Syria. We have things again, a bookshelf, sofa, television... it’s nice, you know? In Lebanon, we all slept in the kitchen.


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So many people here are very welcoming, so supportive. We got lots of things through donations, mostly from the church. But it’s not everyone. I was once locked out of the flat and was waiting for the council to come with the spare key. My neighbour came home as I was sitting on the floor, and literally stepped over me and didn’t say anything. She passed me twice over the three hours, and not once did she ask me if I was okay or even offer me her toilet.


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There were so many appointments in the first few months here. And the forms, my god! Going here and registering, going there and registering. Appointments, appointments, forms, forms. It drove me crazy. All I wanted to do was sit at home and tidy up the house. To settle, to breathe. There was sometimes too much pressure at the beginning, with everyone wanting us to get going so quickly. I just wanted to tidy the flat all the time.


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In their first year of school, the children had lots of after school clubs and activities — swimming, dancing, football. This year, they will only have football club as swimming and dancing are not being offered. We were told they were being cut because of funding. They also sent us a letter saying the children will be served smaller portion meals at school and we should supplement their lunches.


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I always feel like I’m losing control, especially of Owais. He has so much access to technology here, it’s so open, too open. I found out he was ordering things online using my credit card. They were mostly games through Google Play, £2.50 each, but I wasn’t checking my account so didn’t notice. Then, one day, a PlayStation arrived at the house. I was furious! He said that he thought if he asked me, I would never allow him to buy one. Because all of his friends have one, he wanted one, too. He has no idea what is worth spending money on and what isn’t.

(communication rights)

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The social worker assigned to us by the council reacted really horribly after the problems with Owais. She made it all my fault, talking about the lack of boundaries and discipline in the house. She was really mean. She put up a daily schedule on the wall stating what time we should wake up in the mornings, when we should shower, for how long. Television only for one hour, and only 15 minutes for breakfast! She made us sign the schedule — not just me, all of us. We tore it up after she left.

(hospitality, London)

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We love London. I met Hanaa*, one of my closest friends here, through a Syrian group on Facebook about arriving in Haringey. Our first week here, we wanted to go see Big Ben. We used Google Maps but kept on getting lost! [laughs]. We started asking anyone for directions. ‘Follow me, follow me’ they’d say! We had a great time. It was raining a lot but it was still amazing.

(digital lives, London)

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This dress is made from the material of a dress that belonged to my mother. Isn’t it beautiful? Asmaa’s is purple with beads on it, but I like this one with the black lace. Our mother didn’t have a hat though, we got these made because having hats is very British, just like the Queen!


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My friends in Leicester went to so much trouble to make us feel welcome when we visited. You should have seen the dishes she cooked for us. But on the second day there, the children started nagging, wanting to come back home. Lamar was really worried about leaving her sunflower behind without water for too long. When we got back to Wood Green Station they were so happy! We really feel at home in our flat.


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