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Equal Access Event - Refugee Testimony: From Aleppo to Warwick University

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My name is Najeeb Kabawa. I’m currently studying for a Master in Communications and Information Engineering at the University of Warwick.

In 2011, when the war in Syria started to take its toll on my beloved city Aleppo, I was studying for a similar master’s at the university of Aleppo. I was also working as a lecturer at a technical institute, and volunteering at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is the equivalent to the Red Cross.

I was, like every Syrian, fed up with the mafia controlling our country, also known as the Syrian regime. When the war started the situation had reached a boiling point, everyone was tired of what had been shoved down their throats for decades. All individuals participating in the protests believed they were involved in the greater cause of making a better country. But, bigger players with guns, money, and selfish agendas were making their own plans. That is what it is today, and people who believed in the greater cause lost the war four years ago. They lost everything, if not also their lives, and they ran away from this game of warlords knowing that they could no longer make any difference.

Everything started to change in 2012. Volunteering was no longer visiting elders or entertaining children in schools. It became working as a first aid volunteer, dealing with civilian casualties, distributing food and essential life supplies for people chased away from their homes and neighbourhoods, and establishing and managing refugee camps them.

I moved to work as a quality inspection engineer, working on rooftops and towers inspecting cellular networks installations. The work became more and more dangerous every day with shelling of the city, especially on high buildings where I had to work. Listening to bullets whistling passing by my head became part of the everyday routine. Also, my master’s studies started to stumble and slow down due to the effects of war. There was no longer security and services, occasional and slow internet connection, no water, no electricity, no heating fuel, and some weeks with no food.

Life stood still there, or moved backwards. Cold and hunger became an everyday fear, along with death, which lost its ability to shock. Most people no longer cried at burial ceremonies. At one point, early in 2015, I gave up on the idea that I would ever finish my master’s, even though I was at the dissertation stage and finished all my other modules with high marks. Also, I had growing problems with the government due to my opinions against them that I shared and posted on social media networks. But more importantly, I realized that bullets missed me for long enough, and if they hit me now I would be the one to blame, not them.

The city left me before I left it. Everybody fled the war and I could no longer see familiar faces in the streets where I had lived my whole life, even the buildings and streets were mostly destroyed, closed, dark, and cold.

I decided to go somewhere else to continue my studies and start a new life. I chose the UK for many reasons. The main two reasons were that I’m already older than most students, so a system where a master’s is only one year, and a country that spoke a language that I could speak well already was my best choice; not to mention that it’s a good country that respects human rights. But I was deeply disappointed when I found out that the UK does not grant international Syrian students a visa, unless they can give a solid proof that they will go back to Syria after their studies are finished. They wanted a proof that I would come to the UK, spend a year and about £25000 on a degree, and then go back to Syria to die! I had no proof that I could return to Syria, so illegal entrance was my only option. It was my first illegal act ever, but I my hands were tied.

I started the most expensive and dangerous journey of my life, so far. Heading to Turkey, passing through conflict zones was an unforgettable nightmare. They managed to make me feel utterly insignificant there, sadly not only there, but along the whole trip to the UK, because I had committed the ultimate crime of being born in Syria and holding its nationality.

From Turkey, the sea was the only way to Europe, and although I can’t swim more than 50 meters, I had to go through it. Eventually, after living in a war zone for years, you come to terms with death. It doesn’t become preferable of course, but it no longer freaks you out. I jumped on an overcrowded small rubber raft, with 45 other refugees, and I was lucky that the sea was calm that night, so we crossed the sea with only a small amount of water coming into the boat.

In Greece I was optimistic, but not after being dropped in a camp in the middle of nowhere under the burning sun of summer with zero accommodation. I was forced to stay in a tent that I had to pay for. I could afford a hotel, but as a Syrian I’m not allowed to. I stayed there waiting for some piece of paper for days, then I moved to Athens and I was allowed to pay for a roof over my head. It might seem insignificant to have a roof over your head if you’ve had it all your life, but after that camp, that hotel room, with its cool AC and clean shower, felt as good as heaven, I felt like a human being again.

Now in Athens, I had to search for smugglers’ nests, go to these hidden secret meetings, and use secret words. I felt like I was conspiring against the whole world and becoming a criminal, just because I wanted a good life. I stayed in Greece for a month trying different fake passports from different remote islands. The smugglers picked airports with light security, and gave me precious tips to have a higher chance of succeeding. After few unsuccessful attempts, which were mentally and physically devastating, I got on a flight from Greece to the UK. On that plane, it felt like a superb achievement, as if I was sitting on the top of the world.

I landed in London, turned myself in, and applied for asylum. The process was smooth and straight forward, and for the very first time in my life, I was no longer afraid of people in uniforms and guns. The process was about three months, the treatment from the government officials was really good, considerate, and respectful. They moved me between many accommodations from London, to Liverpool, and then Manchester. I finally got refugee status, and the leave to remain in the UK. It was not very long process, but long enough to make it impossible to start master’s studies in that year.

I settled in Greater Manchester, and registered myself in the job centre, I also volunteered in a local project to help new refugees. I went with them to help with interpreting at banks, hospitals, GPs, and jobcentres.

Being there and engaging with all these people and places, I’ve seen many good things, but also many crazy things. Like the English classes that the jobcentre, which taxpayers pay for. They are sadly dysfunctional. The people who go there only do so because they are forced by the jobcentre, and if they play dumb enough the teachers just pamper them and spend the time doing nothing useful. The teachers themselves have almost given up on the process because it is badly managed. The amount of money spent on such classes is scary, yet it’s just a waste, and no real progress is made. I had this conversation with jobcentre workers many times and they told me, it is what it is, and that the bureaucracy is a barrier stopping them from fixing the situation.

It was quite scary to find out that the teaching of English in the home of English is so poor for the people who need it the most. From dealing with tens of refugees through volunteering, I found that the one most important barrier in their life here is the language. They don’t need something fancy like getting an IELTS, but a moderate level of English so they can survive and support their families, and become part of the community. Speaking the local language is almost a human right, not something they can afford to give up on, but it is also something they cannot afford or to pay for privately. Refugees with bad English can’t go to a GP, open a bank account, or fix a tooth to stop agonizing toothache without an interpreter, not to mention finding a job. And then comes the job centre asking them to apply for jobs! Most of them had to lie to the job centre and say they are applying for imaginary jobs, and the workers there knew that they were being lied to, but all was following the system.

By that time, I was familiarising myself with life in the UK, studying for an academic IELTS test, applying to universities, looking for loans or scholarships, and training for a driver’s licence driving in order to learn to drive on the left side of the road, which was like mission impossible for me. Everything was new and different, my only friends were the language and the internet. I managed by finding information on official websites, blogs, and social networks.

I applied to many universities and scholarships. The application process was clear and straightforward for all universities, and some gave detailed about admission requirements for Syrians, like the University of Warwick, while others were partially vague. The hardest part was securing references, I was lucky to reconnect with two of my lectures who were exceptionally supportive and filled the reference forms for me for a dozen of applications, and for that I can’t thank them enough. Many refugees in similar situations fail to get such references. I made many applications and secured 11 offers with no scholarships so far, so I started planning for the loan. I was not optimistic about scholarships because of my age, which is a main factor in such processes, but then I received my first gift from the world, a full scholarship from the University of Warwick. It was truly overwhelming to finally feel that someone out there really cares, I can’t even begin to describe it.

Studying in the UK is very different than back in Syria. There’s tons of independent learning that the student has to do, and smaller margin between passing and distinction marks. The concept of assignment was never there in Syria, it was awkward for me at first, but then I found it much better, because it simulates real life situations; when you have a task, open resources, and a deadline. It is way more realistic than an exam environment. The resources available through the library and through the access to great academic bodies like the IEEE were something new also, and tremendously helpful.

The fact that an MSc lasts only one year was a main attraction for me, but was also harder to handle for someone who lived through the Syrian system. Along with studying, I had to apply for jobs, take their tests, attend interviews and assessment days. In Syria this is something you do after getting your degree. In Syria, the job seeking process is much simpler - if you are related to a powerful person in the chain of command that governs the country, then you get a good job. It’s fast and easy, even if you don’t qualify for it. If you don’t know anyone you have to suffer and wait. So I went through some quite challenging job applications in the UK, and finally I signed a contract for a job in Edinburgh starting in next September.

Time moves fast, and soon I’ll move to professional life after being a student; a transition that I will be going through for the second time in my life. It is, and will continue to be an interesting journey full of new experiences, new good people, and achievements hopefully.

Looking back at how things went, I find it mind-blowing. How close I came to losing my life, how close I came to failing at some point and ending up in a totally different, worse situation, and how I got back on track with studies and secured a job! I can’t explain. The factors that shaped this journey are more than what my head can even begin to process. There was a lot of hard work and determination, but luck and other factors were also important. The support from the UK government and from the University of Warwick were tremendous, I wouldn’t have made it without them, and I can’t be thankful enough.

Still, the fact that many other people who are better than me, who tried harder than me but didn’t prevail, and are still stuck in a warzone, or lost the battle and are no longer among us. That fact will always haunt me and haunt everyone with a conscience in this world, and hopefully it will be enough to generate more support, and ultimately to stop the war and put an end to this madness one day.

Najeeb Kabawa (a Masters student in Communications and Information Engineering)

Wed 08 Mar 2017, 22:54