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A journey to be seen as human again

What happens when you have no choice but to flee your home and leave all you know behind? Can you ever utilise your experiences and turn them into opportunities for others?

When Attal Shams’ journey of conflict, displacement, and resilience became the focus of his dissertation, he didn’t think anyone would be interested. But now, those experiences have become the driving force to him making a real difference to others.

Born at the height of the Cold War, Attal was just nine years old when he left Kabul in Afghanistan. He and his family moved around the country, settling in the north where Attal started secondary school. Soon after, they decided to flee the country altogether.

“I became an adult overnight. At 13, I was responsible for bringing in an income to feed my family. We were in a new place where I didn’t speak the language and I had to make a living. That’s where my story started.”

Attal began working in a market in central Asia selling tea. It was a far cry from his previous life. His father, a high-ranking military general and Director of the Secret Service, was killed in action during the Soviet-Afghan War.

“At that age working in a market, you need to be vigilant and smart. Otherwise, that environment and that new city will consume you. It was all about survival.” It was 1998 and the Soviet Union had just collapsed. Life was dangerous in the former republics and, to survive, Attal began learning Russian.

At the age of 14, Attal moved from Uzbekistan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and eventually 6 months after residing in Bishkek he travelled to Moscow. He didn’t tell his mother where his journey would take him, but he had a brother who was already there. Passage took four days and a $300 bribe for the train conductor to overlook an undocumented, unaccompanied minor.

Every stop along the border, he expected to be caught. He hid in toilets, luggage compartments, anywhere he could to avoid discovery. During the late ‘90s, it was reported that more than 70,000 people went missing along the same journey Attal took to Moscow, particularly women and children.

“It’s a dark world if you’re undocumented, illegal, and a migrant. In that part of the world, you’re not considered human. You’re not even a number. You’re nothing. I made this journey to be seen as human. To become myself and to live, instead of just surviving.”

Moscow was only the first stop in that journey. As an undocumented migrant, Attal was denied an education, but he could earn more money there. However, he was in daily fear of the police who wanted protection money. After working once more in a market selling umbrellas, Attal joined a group of 35 people in search of a better life. Led by people smugglers, they walked from Moscow through Slovakia and over the Carpathian Mountains into the Czech Republic (now Czechia). Ten people had to be left behind because of the difficult terrain and Attal never learned what happened to them.

After four days crossing into Germany, the group endured a ten-hour van ride to end up in Calais where Attal entered one of the since torn-down refugee camps that was, at the time, extremely dangerous.

From there, he had two routes into the UK. He could either stowaway on a ferry or jump the train – a desperate, life-threatening plan that risked touching 25,000 volts of electricity.

Attal chose the first option. To wait until a lorry driver fell asleep, hide in the back among boxes that read ‘Manchester’, and hope it would lead him to a new home. “Getting in the truck was a bit like putting on a blindfold. You didn’t know where it would take you. I heard stories of people ending up in Turkey, but the aim was the UK. I spoke no English, but my friend recognised the word Manchester – thanks to his love of football – on the boxes around us.”

Attal had heard the UK was accepting Afghan refugees and granting them indefinite leave. It was 2001 and the world had changed once more. A change in policy gave Attal a chance for a new life, but to gain this offered acceptance, you needed legitimate paperwork to prove nationality.

Attal had more than that though. From Afghanistan to Calais, over 7,000 miles, Attal had carried his father’s documents. He wrapped them in five plastic bags to keep them safe from the rivers they’d traversed in small boats. Along with the documents were the medals and proof of ideology that had led to his family needing to flee.

“I said, ‘This is my past: although you are no longer here with us, at least your documents can help me.’”

Having been granted asylum in the UK, for the first time since he was 13, Attal's life was not just about survival. He could finally think about his education again. Still on the move, he started working, picking spring onions in the Lincolnshire fields and working in factories from South Yorkshire all the way to Croydon. At first, he applied to a few colleges in Birmingham but was unsuccessful. After joining an Access to Higher Education course, he was able to gain GCSEs in English and Maths, giving him the qualifications to study in Warwick’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.

“Part of who I am is because of Warwick – the experience, the excellent lecturers, and the support. The amount of support I received was beyond belief.”

As part of his degree, Attal was able to explore the myriad reasons behind what happened to him and his family in Afghanistan and, although he was an older student in his class, he had experience. He didn’t need to learn about events from books. He had lived through them.

And he decided that he would use that experience to help others. Straight after the last exam of his degree, Attal flew to Greece to help refugees with the aim of making their experience smoother, if not better. He worked in the camps there, looking after the most vulnerable people, such as unaccompanied minors and pregnant women.

“Three months in that camp opened my eyes. The big, big numbers – I'm talking about 40,000 people living in the same place – and hearing what they went through. My experience was completely different, but I saw the resilience in human beings.”

 Attal at work with the President

After a promotion from Protection Assistant to Protection Officer, Attal had the opportunity to continue his work in Greece and grow his career, or to return to the UK and pursue further education. He chose to return to Warwick, applying for his Master’s from Greece.

Since completing his second degree, Attal is still helping people who, like him, returned to education later in life. He became Head of Adult and Access to Higher Education/Counselling at Macclesfield College, where he also teaches British Social Policy and Sociology.

“We need to do more for adults. I’ve had students in the past who were expelled from school and ended up becoming student of the year. It gives me inexpressible joy to see their progress and to support them along the way.”

Attal is passionate about giving people opportunities and challenging a system where much of our education and schooling ends when we become adults.

“People underestimate themselves when they reach a certain age. A voice echoes around them telling them they cannot do this. But, no, I say you can do it and I want to be the person who gives them that opportunity. It might be their last chance and it can make a change for the better for themselves and their community.”

Since taking up his post, Attal has seen an immense change and he’s able to pull on his own experiences to help inspire people to reach their goals. Education, he thinks, is vital, especially now that refugees have started appearing more negatively within some British media.

“I want people not to just pity refugees, but rather to believe in their potential to achieve great things. In Britain, we have a history of the positive impact that refugees and migrants have made in society.

He believes that sharing his story is one way to change opinion.

“Refugees are not just numbers. These are people with stories, knowledge, food, education, life that they bring with them like luggage. And all this luggage is positive.”


Photographs: Attal at a virtual meeting with Bill Gates regarding polio vaccines in Afghanistan (above); young Attal's first passport photo (top); Attal in a meeting with the President of Afghanistan (bottom).