Three refugees share their stories and their fears after escaping to Scotland.
The so-called Islamic State caliphate is thousands of miles from Scotland.
But for Syrian-born Alaa Alkhalef, 25, who lives in Glasgow, the terrorist group is never far from her mind.
Alkhalef’s brother Ali was just 17 when he was captured, tortured and murdered by IS in Deir al-Zour.
She and her family found out the news through a Facebook post which showed Ali’s body crucified on a post. Since his murder last October, Alkhalef has grown increasingly concerned for her other relatives, including her parents, brothers and sisters, who live in the city of Jasim in Daraa, in south-west Syria. A bullet left at the door of the family home earlier this year was understood to be a threat from IS.
Alkhalef, who lives with her partner and their three children, in the west of Glasgow, said her family in Syria are being targeted by Daesh – the dismissive Arabic term used by opponents of IS in the Middle East.
Ali had been travelling through Syria in a bid to cross the Turkish border when he was caught by IS at Deir al-Zour. The teenager’s death sparked protests in his home town of Jasim, which Alkhalef said prompted the distribution of leaflets warning residents that IS would take over the area.
“They [residents] said, ‘It’s not fair, a child of 17 was killed with no crime,'” said Alkhalef, through a translator. “It really confirmed to people that IS was criminal. In the flyers it said: ‘We’re going to rule Daraa, we’re going to overcome, and we’re going to apply Sharia law – Islamic Law – on you.”
She said the Free Syrian Army, which was set up by officers and soldiers who defected from the Syrian Armed Forces during the country’s civil war, gathered the leaflets and asked people to hand them in.
Alkhalef believes IS fighters tried to shoot her eldest brother in March. She said clashes between IS and the Free Syrian Army also took place in April.
“The reason we know it’s Daesh is as the Free Syrian Army caught the men who tried to shoot my brother,” said Alkhalef. “They said they were managed by Daesh. The army looked through their phones and there was evidence they were sent by Daesh leaders.
“Daesh is hidden but we know they are everywhere,” she said. “They are taking over a lot of cities now. People are terrified. They have a strong hold.
“I feel my family will never be able to get out if Daesh take over the city. They want to get out of it, but Jordan [where many United Nations refugee camps are] is not accepting people.”
Alkhalef’s mother’s mental health is deteriorating. She had been shielded from the image of her dead son, but found the picture on one of her other son’s mobile phones recently.
“My family [back in Syria] are not sleeping,” said Alkhalef. “My brothers’ wives stay overnight at their family homes instead of with their husbands. It is hell. It’s not stable. There is no electricity, no fuel.”
Alkhalef said her eldest brother, who is 28, told her: “I spent all my life studying hard in economics hoping to have a better life. Now I live in fear. It looks like I’ve never been to school. I feel my life’s just been destroyed.”
In an effort to find out more about her brother Ali’s last hours, Alkhalef searched the internet for clues. She came across a Facebook page which included links to a news blog called Deir al-Zour is Being Slaughtered Silently. She made contact with a journalist working secretly to tell the stories of people in the area.
Alkhalef pretended to be male to begin with, because of Middle Eastern culture, and she wanted the journalist to speak freely. “I started to talk as a boy,” she said. “I said I was looking for my brother Ali Alkhalef. I asked if he had any news about him.”
Alkhalef said the journalist told her: “Your brother is a martyr of Daesh. He was a good young man.” Alkhalef added: “He told me to keep my chin up and be really proud of my brother. He again told me I needed to be proud of my brother, he refused to join them.”
When the teenager was captured by IS – where he was subjected to lashings, beatings and electric shocks before he was tied to a post, shot in the head in front of a crowd of people and left to rot for three days – he shared a prison cell with another young man. The man had been jailed because he was caught smoking a cigarette, according to the journalist. “Everything is prohibited by the Islamic State – it’s like caveman times,” said Alkhalef.
“He was sentenced for one month for being caught smoking. But he was close to my brother in the cell. The day before the execution of my brother, he spoke to the boy who was caught smoking. My brother told him, ‘I was under torture, I ended up telling them I was part of the Free Syrian Army in the end because they were torturing me so much. The other boy said he should go and tell them it’s not true. But Ali said, ‘No, I want to die tomorrow rather than die every day through torture.’
When the young man was released he met with the journalist collecting stories of the prisoners.
Alkhalef said: “This journalist was so pleased to speak to a member of Ali’s family because he had the message to pass on from my brother from the man in the same cell.
“The journalist told me Ali had said, ‘Please tell my mum I’m innocent. I’ve been jailed for nothing. Whatever they say about me it’s not true. Don’t cry for me, I haven’t done anything wrong.'”
A new baby was born to the family in Syria shortly after Ali’s death. Although Alkhalef is hopeful of a family reunion, she fears she will never meet her baby niece, whose birth has been tainted.
She said: “We didn’t enjoy her birth, we were in a deep sadness. Before the war started we had a good life. We were happy. The war started and then my brother was killed – there is no happiness in my heart anymore. Ali didn’t have a chance to see his niece. We don’t know what we will do for her, there is nothing to offer her. She was born into uncertainty.”
AFTER an explosion, the first instinct is to run to the victims. But for people living in Syria, helping others brings a huge risk with it. “When there is one bomb you should always expect another,” said Mustafa Fouad, 34, an asylum seeker living in the south side of Glasgow. He has the burns to prove it.
During an attack, thought to be by government forces, on his home city of Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, Fouad came out of his house in an attempt to move his car. At that moment his 16-year-old neighbour was killed by a bomb. When Fouad ran to his side, another explosion happened almost instantly. Fouad jumped to the side of his wall to try to escape, but the right side of his body was severely burned.
“When you see an injured person you want to help him,” Fouad said, speaking with the help of a translator. “But we know that the military watch to see when someone goes to help, and then they bomb again.”
Fouad is safe for now but he still worries about the threat of the Assad regime and Islamic State.
“I worry there are people here in Scotland, we don’t know what they believe in,” he said. But that pales in comparison to what he feels for his wife and two children. Tucked away in Foad’s wallet is a picture of a young boy wearing a T-shirt with the wrestler John Cena on it and a matching cap.
Fouad has not seen his son, now 11, and his eight-year-old daughter for more than two-and-a-half years, though he speaks to his wife as often as possible. They have all been displaced. Darayya, once a city with 250,000 residents has little more than 6,000 people.
The ones who are left, Fouad said, “cannot move because they don’t have money or they have relatives who are sick. Or they cannot move because every way they go they will be targeted inside Syria. It’s very dangerous in Darayya,” he added. “People are being arrested, tortured or killed.”
Darayya was at the centre of the revolution when it began four years ago.
Fouad, a handyman, began noticing things were drastically changing when checkpoints popped up everywhere.
“I used to travel a lot for my work outside my home,” he says. “I had to go through different military checkpoints.
“It would always cause delays, they would be checking my car, my mobile phone, my national card, my identity.
“I lived in fear of getting arrested.”
Fouad described how his palms would sweat, making the steering wheel clammy. “Sometimes in order to avoid checkpoints I had to go very far away just to get round,” he said.
“But there would be a sniper. Sometimes he’d be on a tall building and I might see him. Anyone could be killed.”
Fouad said he felt like a “prisoner in my own home”. The town was surrounded, he said. “Anywhere you wanted to go out or inside it was military checkpoints. Imagine if you were going from the centre of Glasgow to Castlemilk and you had to go through military checkpoints?”
Fouad and his family escaped. His wife and children went to Mezzeh, also in Damascus. Fouad made a choice to try to seek a better life for the family.
He went to Egypt and tried to arrange for his family to come there, however, the Egyptian government would not allow for visas to be processed. Fouad arranged for a people smuggler to take him to Libya before he paid someone else to bring him over to Europe on a boat. He arrived in Sicily last year after being rescued at sea. He is now waiting for leave to remain, and hopes he will see his family again.
Fouad said that, back in Syria, his wife is questioned as she lived in Darayaa. “My wife lives in fear,” he said. “She has to leave her home sometimes to try to get food or whatever, and when she’s stopped she has to show her national ID.
“In Syria if you are a woman and get married you will be identified as being from the same area as your husband. She is always questioned. She has to prove who she is. It’s a harsh situation. The cost of living is very high, there is no electricity, there is the issue of safety.”
The threat of IS was relatively unknown when Fouad was last in his country. But now he is concerned about how they might affect his wife and children.
Fouad’s other relatives are at a refugee camp in Jordan.
“I didn’t encounter Islamic State when I was there,” he said. “I’m angry with them now. They are a danger to everyone in our country. They could kill anybody, not just my wife and children but anybody. They don’t differentiate between child, man or woman.”
Fouad said the government regime was just as bad. “As Syrians we run away from the regime and we fear Islamic State,” he said. “They destroyed Syria, not just me. Islamic State does not represent Islam.”
What worries Fouad is that his children are missing out on education. In recent photos he says they have sadness in their eyes. “I haven’t seen my children for two-and-a-half years now,” he said. “My son should be in primary seven at school. But he’s in primary two. He’s 11 years old and he’s in second grade. I’m worried if this situation continues my children might forget me.”
Fouad wishes he could work to support his family. “My wife and children are living a life of death,” he said.
MOHAMMAD Ahmad did not expect to spend the first year of his marriage being smuggled across Europe.
The 27-year-old labourer, from Daraa in Syria, wed his 20-year-old wife about a year ago. But he felt under pressure to find a better life for the pair, because they didn’t want to bring any children into such an unstable country.
“Living conditions were very bad there,” said Ahmad, through a translator. “I had no choice but to leave. Everything changed when the war started because the living conditions were very hard. The regime started to seize people. People were starved, it was very hard for them to get food. The regime started to bomb Daraa city.”
Ahmad saved money to pay a human trafficker to stamp his passport so he could fly from Syria to Algeria. Along with his sister’s husband they travelled to Libya to cross the Mediterranean Sea by boat. Ahmad did not know if he would survive the journey.
The UN estimates that 60,000 people have already tried to cross the Mediterranean in the past five months, and that about 1,800 people have died. “We always describe it as the death journey,” said Ahmad. “But I had to try.”
After reaching Sicily, Ahmad made his way through Europe and eventually hid in the back of a lorry at the French coast to come to the UK. He arrived there September last year and was dispersed to Glasgow three days later.
Ahmad’s parents are at a refugee camp in Jordan but his wife is still in Daraa with her parents.
“When I speak to her I cry,” he said. “Islamic State hadn’t reached Daraa when I left but now I’m worried about what they will do. I call her every day just to make sure she is OK.”
Ahmad is fearful about the effect of the regime. “The regime is burning human beings, it’s destroying landscapes. Near to my home in Syria there was a field hospital, we were seeing pieces of children’s bodies and people missing limbs. It was a terrible situation.”
He hoped it would not take long for his wife to join him in the UK. “I don’t wish for anything but this – to have a family and bring them up in Scotland,” he said.
Names have been changed to protect identities