January 3 2016: Syrian refugees: ‘It feels like we never left our families back in Syria because of the warm welcome we received in Scotland’

The Sunday Herald, January 3 2016

Father-of-four Mohammad Ahmad turns to the baby of the family – his youngest son Omar – to ask if he’s happy in Paisley.

A huge grin spreads across the nine-year-old’s face as he takes his eyes off the TV to swivel round and face his dad. “Naam,” he answers – ‘yes’ in Arabic.

The Ahmad family are part of the 400 refugees from Syria who arrived in Scotland in November and were allowed to officially make a home in Scotland under the UK government’s resettlement scheme as they were classed as ‘vulnerable’. Until now, no reporter has spoken to any of the men, women and children. The Sunday Herald is the first paper to hear their stories and find out how these desperate people, fleeing death and destruction in Syria, have found life in the cold climes of Scotland.

The Ahmads were among the first refugees to touch down at Glasgow Airport in November. While some of the 400 other families made their home on the Isle of Bute, the Ahmads were among 50 refugees from UN registered camps in countries bordering Syria who were resettled in Paisley.

We visited Mohammad, 50, his wife Rabaa, 42, and their four children in the midst of the Christmas and New Year storms. The rain is lashing the windows of their small flat, in the same way it battered the plane they travelled here in, they say.

Not that the wet weather is too much of a problem for the family yet. They are overwhelmingly positive about their experience in Scotland so far and are hopeful about what the new year will bring.

Their charter flight carrying vulnerable displaced people landed on November 18. The hearty welcome at the airport left Rabaa in tears and now, surrounded by her family in the warmth of their new home, she becomes emotional again at the thought of it.

“I was actually crying when I arrived here,” she says through a translator.

“I feel like I never left my home because of the warm welcome and care we received. It felt like we never left our families back home. We are among our families again.”

Although they are content, it is clear that things are not perfect.

The two-bedroom flat they are living in is far too small for four boys, including two teenagers.

It isn’t adapted for their eldest son Ahmad, 16, who was born with a birth defect after his mother contracted a virus while pregnant. It was Ahmad’s disability which caused the family to be designated as ‘vulnerable’.

The teenager walks with a pronounced limp, takes medication and will need surgical procedures throughout his life.

His mother is hopeful he will be treated through the NHS as soon as possible. It would make a huge difference to the life of the young man, who is in pain every time he moves.

Mohammad says their new life is a huge improvement to refugee camps in Jordan where conditions were unlivable and they struggled to get treatment for Ahmad.

They left Daraa in South Western Syria three years ago because the civil war left them completely unable to support Ahmad. Their family was also at risk after Mohammad’s sister’s husband was killed at the beginning of the revolution.

“It was not safe in Syria any longer,” says Mohammad. “Things were getting worse and worse. It affected the health support of my son.”

The family always paid for Ahmad’s surgeries and health care privately because it was not available any other way. After the war broke out Mohammad lost his job and could not find work.

He says: “There was nothing left – no jobs, no factories. No hospitals could treat my son. Our lives were in danger there so we had to leave. Nobody would leave their home country without good reason.”

Mohammad fled to a UNCHR refugee camp in Jordan and his family soon followed.

They stayed there before moving to another camp, mainly for Palestinian refugees, nearby with marginally better conditions.

“It was particularly bad for my son with his condition,” Mohammad says.

There was little space and the cost of renting a small flat there trebled in the time they were there.

They registered with the UN six months after leaving Syria. The family heard they were being moved from Jordan as part of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPR) in May 2015.

At first their destination was to be America. It later changed to the UK.

“We didn’t know specifically where we were going,” says Mohammad.

Two days before they left the Middle East, the family was informed they were going to Newcastle.

But in London, while getting ready to board a connecting flight, plans changed and they were on their way to Glasgow instead.

On the plane Rabaa tried to take pictures of the hills and fields but the raindrops scattered all over the window obscured her view.

They could not believe the beauty of the country below them and it still fascinates them.

“I couldn’t imagine it before,” says Rabaa. “I thought Scotland would have a lot of green but not that much.

“I was very surprised. It is beautiful – even the rain falls sensitively on you, so kindly.”

“The weather is colder here and the rain is constant,” Mohammad adds. “But it’s soft rain. In our country we do not have rain often, but if we do it is so heavy and harsh.

“Syria is a beautiful country like a paradise, but there are not a lot of green spaces.”

The weather is certainly a talking point for the children along with other parts of Scottish culture which will take a while to get used to.

Take kissing in public. Rabaa says many of the Syrian families new to Paisley have found this astonishing.

“Every country has their own customs and culture and we need to respect that,” adds Mohammad.

“I feel there’s a lot of differences to where we come from – the food, weather and the clothes people wear, it’s quite different to us.”

They rate highly a very British habit – queuing at the post office – but are puzzled by the huge cups of coffee consumed here.

“I like the way people line up at the shop, it shows the organisation of this country,” says Mohammad. “Where we come from people do not queue.”

The family is also fond of the way animals are treated.

“In our country if a pigeon crossed your way you would cook it for lunch,” says Mohammad. “I was impressed that animals are not harmed in this country.”

It would not be surprising if refugees arriving in Scotland had reservations or worries about their transition.

Following the November 13 Paris attacks carried out by Islamic State, there was a backlash against refugees across Europe.

In Bishopbriggs, just north of Glasgow there was a suspected arson attack on a mosque, while Police Scotland said it was investigating incidents of hate crime in the aftermath of Paris.

However, Mohammad, who worked as a tour guide at the Ancient city of Bosra, a UNESCO world heritage site in Syria, says he has no concerns about possible hatred or racism.

He always knew Scottish people would be polite and helpful after meeting tourists through his job, he says.

However, he feels the community in Paisley has gone above and beyond in the efforts made to make the Syrian families feel welcome.

Credit must be given to the Renfrewshire Refugee Support Group which was set up to make sure Paisley’s new guests were fully supported.

Ahlam Souidi, a founder of Uniting Nations in Scotland (UNIS), which supports refugees and asylum seekers, says the group was consulted in preparation for the families’ arrival.

“Renfrewshire has been good so far,” she says. “I was invited to the Syrians VPR steering group because they wanted to learn from UNIS.

“At that time there were a lot of representatives, people from education, people from NHS. I felt that these people wanted to communicate, they wanted to link up. They were trying to make it right.”

Positive outcomes include having interpreters available round-the-clock. Souidi says it could be a model for other councils to follow.

On the streets the family has experienced kindness too. Mohammad talks about a man in his 70s who walked across the road to ask them where they were from and how they were getting on in Paisley. Through Mohammad’s broken English they managed to have a conversation and the man said they were “very welcome here”.

He recalls the time a woman asked him for a cigarette. When he gave her one she hugged him.

“In my culture that is inappropriate and cannot be done,” Mohammad says. “But I understand she’s trying to thank me with a good warm hug.

“She knew I was foreign but it wasn’t a barrier for her to give me a very welcome warm Scottish hug. When I got home I immediately told my wife so she didn’t misunderstand the situation.”

They enjoy going swimming at the Lagoon Leisure Centre, which they have not been able to do for years.

Omar and his brother Abdolrhman, 11, are ripping open Christmas gifts donated to the UNIS group by the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees.

Their older brothers Ahmad and Ayman, 15, look on patiently.

As Muslims they do not celebrate the religious festival of Christmas but they have been taking part in some traditions.

On Christmas Day they attended a special event for refugees at the Lagoon centre facilitated by Renfrewshire Council.

Rabaa says: “In Syria we lived with many faiths, including Christians. We used to see Christmas celebrations in our life in Syria and be part of it. So we’ve enjoyed being here while everyone celebrates.”

For their first Scottish Hogmanay they invited neighbours round for traditional Syrian food.

Like many Syrians, food is at the heart of family life and of huge social importance. Next year Mohammad wants to put plans together in the aim of opening of a Syrian restaurant in Scotland.

He also wants his family to explore the country – especially the Highlands – and the culture.

The children have already started school, although they only had two weeks before the festive break started.

They will begin to pick up English and integrate into their classes this year.

The family has leave to remain for five years.

As we are getting ready to leave, Mohammad is discussing his home country with the translator.

He tells her Syria is a “tragedy” and he never thought it would come to this. Mohammad is concerned about family members and friends who are still stuck in the chaos.

Like other refugees who have made it to safety, he would like to apply to the family reunion project in order to bring loved ones to the UK.

He is not trying to burden the country, he says, he just knows there is no other option.

It is not surprising then, or too sentimental, when he voices out loud his wish for 2016.

“My wish in the new year is for peace in Syria and for peace all over the world,” Mohammad says.

“We are meant to live in the Earth to love not to destroy or kill. We are meant to live with no weapons in our hand.”

The two young ones are causing havoc in the house as they play with a new remote controlled car and a magic set.

Mohammad puts on a waterproof jacket and tartan scarf to brave the dismal weather.

For now some Syrian families have found peace and safety in Paisley. Along with lots of rain.

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