In a cold evening in a café in Newcastle old centre I`m meeting a young man I`ve known for a year now. We met last November in an English class for refugees and decided to hang out after.
Back then our conversation in English was short, our hand sign talk had survived a bit longer, but the real winner was Google Translate. Now, Ahmad is standing beside me smiling and easily finding his words (we used the phone only five times!)
His accent is slowly turning the conversation to his hometown, Latakia in Syria and his journey to the North of England. He starts telling me how bad the Syrian economy had suffered since the start of the war: before the war one British pound could get you 50 Syrian pounds (the official currency of Syria); now 300 Syrian pounds is equal to a British pound.
He remembers his years as a university student. Marine engineering is a tough specialty to study even without the hustle to move countries. He has done two years in Syria and has completed his studies in Egypt and now he is proud to call himself a marine officer and to show off his marine passport.
The Syrian call to arms has started when he finished his degree in Egypt, so he was called back in the country. With his passport almost expired there weren`t many options for him as the Syrian embassy in Egypt refused to renew it.
Ahmad sent his passport through the post to his family hoping something can be done. When the Syrian government found and detained his passport, he found himself short of options – in a foreign country, without a passport, with no means to travel in other countries. He has been accepted to start his master degree at Newcastle University, but with no passport, arriving in England and avoiding being forceful enrolled in the Syrian army seemed like a fantasy.
Ahmad talks about how lucky he is to come from a wealthy family who could afford to send him money to help. Selling land, his mother could send almost £8000 to help him get to the United Kingdom and be safe.
However, his first concern was how to get out of Egypt through a safe and undetected path. Hearing about a safe path in a city near the border with Libya and after 3 attempts, he got there to find various boats heading to Italy. He agreed with the local mafia to pay £2,300 for a place in a big, modern boat with Italy as a happy destination.
“But where were you keeping so much money?” I hear myself asking, as I don`t dream of crossing continents or negotiating with the Egyptian mafia with a big amount of money in my backpack.
“I sewed two big pockets in my jeans” I hear him laughing “So when they demanded more money, I told them to check since I don`t have any.”
Back to the story, he recalls around 190 people being on the luxurious boat, 50 of them children. After six days of sailing, the local mafia threatened them to get into a smaller boat or jump in the sea. With no options, nearly 200 people crowded in the small boat. Giving them one sim card to call Red Cross Italy (with no credit, as they later discovered), the man told them Italy is five hours away and with this the big boat returned to Egypt.
As the hours were passing, the night came and then the morning too. Praying for small waves, they suddenly discovered themselves surrounded by large ships belonging to the Canadian Marine, “with number 222 written on them”, Ahmad is stressing out repeatedly. This was also the moment they were told they are nowhere near Italy, but in fact on Libya shores. A general feeling of terror spread across the boat as women started to cry.
Ahmad starts smiling as he describes to me the stars from the man`s jacket who came to talk with them. A man who was very kind to them, even though lost people were not his concern. As he discussed with them, the general told them he cannot allow anyone on his ships as they were warships, not for human transport. However, he offered on of his ship to escort them to Italy and provide them with food every six hours for the next 3 days.
Reaching Italy, they have been described and registered for the first time as refugees. Keeping his goal of reaching England in mind, Ahmad explains how he tried to find ways of reaching England and meeting an Italian man who had promised to help in exchange for information.
At this point, with the noise increasing around us and the café getting busier, I`ve come to realise the young officer in front of me is not calling out liars. Even though he is familiar with the term “liar”, he rather says about somebody that was “alone” when referring to a person or a group who cheated him with money or information.
Same he does for this Italian man who promised to help him to reach England in exchange for information about Syrian navy: “he was alone”.
From the Italian shores to Milano he had spent £300 on train tickets as there are fewer security controls. He had bought nice clothes and headphones to pass under the radar to Italian police and pretend to be asleep when someone wanted to check his train ticket and passport.
After a week in Milano, he had paid another £500 for train tickets to Paris and applied the same strategy. Here he had the real cultural shock. He slows down and quietly talks about the people he saw on the street using drugs and injecting various substances. Many less fortuned refugees were sleeping under bridges next to drug addicted. Fearing them, Ahmad tried to find a comfortable place to stay, but without a passport everything was designed to be more expensive.
Travelling to Calais next, he had discovered this city was a major destination for refugees. He headed to Brussels, where he had easily found a lorry heading to London, for the price of £5000. Being too expensive, he searched more until he had found a cheaper place for “only” £3000 and £300 as a deposit, with other two refugees.
Through all this cash madness, I ask him about his family and if he could reach them while he was travelling. He is smiling as he opens up about constantly using Viber and Whatsapp to talk with his family and let them know about his travel progress and that he is safe.
Returning to his story, he recalls celebrating the night before going to England, because he thought this was his last ride and by next sunset he would see Big Ben.
The lorry was, in fact, transporting fridges to the United Kingdom, so the constant temperature was around -3/-4 degree Celsius. He laughs telling me that his biggest problem in that day was all the coke he drank the night before and his desperate need of a toilet. However, the Belgium police caught them and turned them around.
Disappointed, but wiser, on his second attempt, he avoided to drink liquids and made sure he carried an empty bottle just in case. Same on his third and fourth attempt. After his seventh failed try, he considered staying in Belgium and made a life for himself there. However, his strong-minded mom influenced his son from thousands of kilometres away and had encouraged him for a final shot.
On each of his seven times, the lorry was carrying fridges, but the eight-time, it was full of chocolate, for Ahmad joy to not endure any colder nights! Bringing him luck, that chocolate was also his passing ticket to London!
Very tired, with messy hair and beard, but very happy he found himself in front of the tower of London surrounded by a million red flowers. Running to the first policeman he could find (who luckily was speaking Arab) went to the central police station in London and introduced himself as a marine officer from Syria, showing them his marine passport and his student card from the university.
He was granted the asylum visa, passed two interviews to get a blue passport (as a refugee, “belonging to no country” he says thinking of Latakia – his hometown) and have been relocated by the government in Sunderland.
As we finish our interview he tells me he lives now in Newcastle and he`s going to two local colleges to take English classes. He wants to get a job, but have been told that as a refugee his qualification don`t have any value and he should take a job as a waiter in a restaurant. He is dreaming of joining his friends in Dubai and getting a marine engineering job. The job is waiting for him, he confesses, but with a refugee passport, there is no chance he could get an interview and a job there.
Sitting relaxed on the couch and drinking his hot (now cold) chocolate, I ask him how has he accommodated to the British culture. He acknowledges he doesn`t have real friends. Now he knows more people and has a house, but not a home. Truthful to his non-drinking and non-pork eating habits, it is hard to find people with similar habits in the North of England, but he enjoys meeting open-minded people every day.
As the hour rush is over now and the café is almost empty again, I realise several hours have passed and I`ve been listening to the men in front of me as if I was in a cinema, hypnotised by a story I have heard before in the news, but never so detailed and from an optimistic point of view.
Speaking with other two refugees about their reason to choose England, I find out that there are some Syrian schools with English background, so in terms of the language barrier, it`s easier to communicate, work and study in a country you know the language.
Bader (one of the refugees who used to live in Sunderland) is telling me that “few others prefer to come here because they are fans of Primer League and they support Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester, etc.”
After all, men are men, no matter the nationality or religion!
Caption: Photos taken from Ahmad`s personal photo album or Facebook profile with his consent.
Until next time,
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