14 Syrian refugees cheered on England as they won over Nigeria at Wembley on June 2. Some of those refugees had only been in UK for 2 months | Credit: IOM
When around one million migrants arrived in Europe in 2015 they were referred to as a tide, a flood, a flow - and often perceived as a problem. TV news showed mile upon mile of faces, tired after long journeys, clinging on to rubber dinghies, waiting at barbed wire border fences with hands pressed in desperation against the wire. An overwhelming number of eyes staring out of hopeful and hopeless faces.
It is hard to believe that this man dressed in a smart white shirt and speaking in a near-perfect English accent at a conference room at the IOM – the UN Migration Agency – in London is one of those million faces. But he is. Ahmad Al Rashid came to London from Aleppo, Syria.
In 2011, he was about to complete a degree in English language and literature in his home city. He is part of the Syrian Kurdish population, which is why at first he saw hope and felt sense of freedom in the Arab Spring movement sweeping across much of the Arab world. Intellectuals, teachers and students were out on the street during those first demonstrations.
They were peaceful protests, he explains. But his dreams of a better future quickly turned to nightmares, as he later wrote in an article for The Guardian in 2016.This is why he decided to leave.
"I arrived in the UK in July 2015 and it was about a 55-day journey from the Middle East to the UK," explains Al Rashid. His first statement makes it sound relatively straightforward perhaps, but as he elaborates, the risks he took in order to reach a new life become clearer. He ended up leaving eastern Aleppo for the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq where he worked for UNICEF for nearly two and a half years. He had to leave Aleppo because of shelling and attacks.
It became evident that he would have to fight and kill or be killed himself if he chose to stay, so he chose neither and left. Towards the end of his time in Iraq, Islamists had started attacking the city of Mosul, too, and Al Rashid was feeling the absence of his wife and young daughter.
He felt he had to go back to get them although he couldn't get to Aleppo. So he crossed back into Syria and started to arrange his journey aiming for the UK. He crossed into Turkey and made his way to Izmir on the Aegean coast. From there he travelled to the Greek island of Kos.
Once he reached Athens on the Greek mainland, he found a smuggler who arranged his onward travels. He couldn't afford direct passage to the UK, which he was told would cost 10,000 euros, so he paid half that amount to get to Marseilles on the southern French coast. From there he found his way to Calais and started trying everything he could to get on a train or lorry heading across the Channel.
"Everyday I was chasing cars and transportation vans and smugglers putting me in the back of trucks with vegetables and fruit and chicken. The last night in Calais, a smuggler from Egypt put me and another seven people from Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria in the back of a tanker. It was full of flour and he said it would be 'two hours and you will end up in the UK'."
After waiting so long to get to the UK, Al Rashid said he was feeling excited. But the smuggler had to lock them in the tanker. "It was total darkness. I was so, so exhausted from the journey and I just wanted to make it to the UK. The smuggler walked away after we had slipped through a door in the top of the tanker. There was no air, there was nothing, no reception for my phone, nothing. The tanker didn't move for hours. After 5 hours it started moving. After 7 hours we started feeling like we were suffocating. After 11 hours we started knocking and knocking and knocking and eventually, the driver heard us and let us out - and we were near the Italian border."
They had been put in the wrong vehicle going in the wrong direction. Al Rashid says he was "furious." "I almost got killed with these people."
He had to go back to Calais, then on to Belgium where he crossed into Germany. He wondered if he should try and claim asylum in Germany, where he had a brother, but he was told if he wanted to apply for a family reunion, the UK was the best place to be.
"At that time, in 2015, eastern Aleppo was under bombardment - and every minute is a life changer," explains Al Rashid. "If you spend one or two years waiting in Germany..." He doesn't finish the sentence but goes onto explaining how he managed to find another smuggler who put him in the back of a large van transporting potato chips.
"I was so pleased to be in a van with a lot of chips, much easier than a tanker," he smiles, "but obviously I didn't eat any of them," he quickly adds. "After three days I ended up in Grimsby (a fishing port in the north of England) in the UK."
Upon arrival, Al Rashid was soon detained, but even that process seemed positive compared to what he had left behind, explains Al Rashid: "Treatment inside the detention center was amazing compared to what I expected back in my country! I was offered food and clothes and a phone to contact my family if I wanted it."
The only things that shocked him, although he refuses to call them negative experiences, were the weather and the food, at least at first. But once he found some places to eat and got used to the constant rain, he felt his life was starting to go "in the right direction."
Despite studying English language and literature, he had never been to the UK or even Europe before but he quickly found his feet. He reckons that having a good grasp of English helped him save three to four years from the integration process. Football apparently helped a lot, too.
He joined a team of refugees and asylum seekers while he was still in Middlesbrough and then, when in London, he took part in a scheme with the Football Association (FA) and IOM and attended the Nigeria—England friendly at Wembley Stadium prior to the World Cup.
"Being in England and football, even in Syria, football is a very big thing. Most of the time I feel that sports and football was a good place to create possibilities; to meet people and interact."
Integration: a two-way street
Beyond that, Al Rashid notes that integration is a two-way process. He had the language skills, he is outgoing and loves to explore different cultures. However, integration programs in the UK also helped him immensely.
When he arrived he lived with a host family for five months at first. He describes this experience as "life transforming." He learned about the customs and culture of his host country. They also suggested he apply for scholarships to pursue a Masters degree and continue with his education. He proudly shows a picture of his graduation from SOAS university in London, which took place only on the day before we meet.
"Integration is a two-way process," he explains, "I can study the language and history and do my best but if the host community doesn't embrace me and support me, it's not going to work."
Dipti Pardeshi, the Chief of Mission for the IOM in the UK agrees. "After the refugee lands, local authorities, businesses and the community play an important role to help refugees adjust by providing the necessary tools to return to rebuild their lives. Since the adoption of VPRS [Vulnerable persons resettlement scheme], we have witnessed the generosity and welcome from local [governmental] authorities, communities and businesses and we can see the positive impact it has on people's lives."
The main keys to integration, Al Rashid thinks, consist of time, acknowledging the people who are involved, and understanding that it is a personal process. Support from the host community with housing, healthcare, employment, education, and psychosocial support to deal with the traumas that many of these people have faced are also vital steps to ensure integration.
The family reunion process is also highly important in this context, Al Rashid explains: "If you are separated from your family, it affects you psychologically and mentally and this could be one barrier [to integration.]"
At the IOM, Al Rashid works with the resettlement and integration team. They deliver one-day training programs to front-line staff who are working to resettle the group of 20,000 vulnerable Syrians which the UK has pledged to settle by 2020. Al Rashid points out that involvement of Syrians themselves is crucial: "These people are often missing from the debate."
Learning from them for various actors working in the UK is important as it helps manage facilities and expectations on both sides. Dipti Pardeshi at the IOM agrees. In an email to InfoMigrants, she underlines the need for a joined approach to facilitate integration: "Integration is a two-way street that needs engagement of both refugees and the host community. This can form the basis of effective integration and it requires a strategic and coherent approach that shows a clear commitment from governments and stakeholders at all levels – local, regional or national."
Integration can be tricky because there is no "one size fits all" approach. "What IOM – the UN Migration Agency has seen across the world, is that a clear commitment from governments to integration can have long-term benefits to the social and economic well-being of countries. This commitment involves concrete actions to establish minimum standards, evaluation methods, infrastructures, dedicated staff and sufficient funding. If any one of these elements are missing, it could risk the likelihood for success."
Ahmad Al Rashid can talk from his own experience from working at the IOM. "Most of these people [being resettled] are the most vulnerable. These people might have been deprived of their education, had no access to work or exposed to a massive degree of trauma. This affects their integration at some level," - and needs to be addressed as part of the integration process.
The IOM has just launched a new program which is trying to not only establish joined-up approaches in one country, but across Europe. It is called LINK IT. “[It] uses a multi-pronged approach to facilitate the labor market integration of Syrians. It is unique in that it will be able to analyze the data collected and report on the findings, informing policy makers. One factor in the project's future is how the EU and the UK shape its migration and asylum strategies in the future."
Data from the project won't be available for a while, but the IOM thinks that more can still be done to facilitate integration all around the globe - both with LINK IT and other programs which governments and agencies are implementing.
Ahmad Al Rashid seems to be living proof of what a successful program can do. But Pardeshi notes that only one percent of refugees have actually been resettled across the world. "Post 2020, a more ambitious resettlement program could provide very real opportunities for people whose lives were destroyed by conflict and disasters."
According to the British Home Office, the UK is over halfway towards its target of 20,000 by 2020.
The UK's family reunion program
Today in 2018, the family reunion program in the UK is aiming to provide swift resettlement in as many cases as it can. A government document by the Home Office says that it "acknowledg[es] the speed and manner in which families may become separated by conflict and persecution, recogniz[es] the stress this may cause and provid[es] a means for immediate family members to reunite in the UK." The Home Office document, last updated in 2016, gives guidelines on how to expedite the family reunions, acknowledging the vulnerable situation that applicants may find themselves in.
This was certainly the case for Al Rashid's family: They were unable to get from Aleppo to Iraq because the area in between was governed by the so-called "Islamic State" at the time. Eventually, they managed to find their way to Lebanon, arriving in the UK in March 2016.
Now Al Rashid and his wife have two daughters, and he says that the two girls feel more British than Syrian because they have lived more of their lives in the UK than Syria. As a refugee, he can no longer go back to Syria, although he remains hopeful that he will be able to return one day, when circumstances allow.
Relentlessly positive, he ends the interview on a high note. He is hopeful that Syrians themselves will be able to rebuild their country when the conflict finally ends, saying confidently that one day it will be a safe place to return to. Until then, Al Rashid, is pressing full steam ahead with his life and work in the UK. He leaves with a smile and a warm handshake, busying himself with integrating others as successfully as he himself has done.