'Being resettled here means my family has been reborn'
Ayham was only a young man when Syria’s brutal conflict began. After his father was murdered, Ayham and has family fled the country in search of safety. Two years ago, they were resettled in the UK.
Now Ayham works with the Refugee Council, helping other resettled Syrian refugees adjust to their new lives in Britain. Here he shares his story.
Before the war in Syria started my life was beautiful.
I was at school, in the equivalent to Year 10. My results were good and I was working hard – my dream was to become a doctor. Outside of school, I had a lot of friends and we’d often go swimming and play football together.
I also had a big, loving family all around me – my parents, my two brothers, my grandparents and my aunties, uncles and cousins. My dad was an antique seller and my mum had just finished a degree in Biology at Damascus University.
I was happy. Then the conflict began.
We used to live in the countryside of Damascus but there was heavy fighting there so my dad decided it’d be safer for us to move into the centre of Damascus.
Life inside Damascus wasn’t affected too much in the first year of the conflict. But then it started to become really dangerous.
Despite the fighting, my dad didn’t want to leave Syria. It was his home. So we stayed. Then everything changed.
It was the second year of the war, just after Ramadan, and the fighting in the countryside outside of Damascus became really bad; there was a lot of bombing. My grandmother still lived there, and she called my dad one day and asked him to come and get her and bring her to Damascus. She was scared.
When my dad was on his way there he was stopped at a checkpoint. He was asked to get out of his car and stand against the wall. Then he was shot and killed.
My grandmother did manage to make it to join us in Damascus in the end, but after a few months I decided it was too dangerous to stay.
I was just about to start medical school but I knew now wasn’t the time to pursue my education. I was the man of the house and I knew that at any point, we could be killed. I also knew what it was like to lose someone you loved. I couldn’t imagine losing my mum or one of my brothers too.
So we left, all of us; my mum, brothers, two aunties, an uncle and three of my cousins and we escaped to Egypt. At that time, Syrians were able to travel freely to Egypt; we didn’t need visas.
We rented a flat, all of us together and tried to start a new life. I was working all day in a restaurant and studying all night to try and restart my education. Then, four months later, we got some terrible news.
My youngest brother Hamza had been diagnosed with leukaemia.
The treatment he needed was really expensive and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to afford it. Once again, I decided to put my education on hold. My family needed me and I hoped I could revisit my studies in the future.
I took on a second job, at a supermarket, and spent a year working all of the hours I could to pay for my brother’s treatment.
Then we got lucky.
One day when my brother was in hospital, people from the UN came by. My mother told them our story and about my brother’s situation and they asked if we’d be interested in being resettled to another country where my brother could have treatment. Of course we said yes.
We went through the application process, through all of the interviews and then the phone call came.
The United Kingdom was going to accept us as refugees.
I’ll never forget that moment, that phone call. We were all crying, we were so happy.
Two months later, in April 2014, we arrived in Bradford. I’d done a lot of research on the internet before we came about the British lifestyle, culture and weather so there weren’t too many surprises.
As soon as we arrived, we immediately wanted to find out what was going to happen about my brother’s treatment. The people who were helping us knew all about his condition already and we had an appointment at the hospital very quickly.
My second concern was how and when I could return to my studies. I went to the local college but they told me they needed to see evidence of my qualifications. I didn’t have any so they told me I’d have to start at GSCE level.
I didn’t know what that meant – I initially thought it was a foundation course to get me into university but then I found out it was a much lower level than I thought. I couldn’t believe it; I’d have to start at the bottom all over again. I cried all day.
After that I was very upset. I didn’t want to do anything, and I stopped eating and drinking. My mum was so worried.
Then one day I asked myself if I really wanted to throw away my future. I’d promised my dad that I would be a doctor one day. I couldn’t let him down.
I returned to my studies and I’ve so far passed four GCSEs at A*/A/B level. I’m doing another three at the moment and hope to get good marks, and then I’ll do my A Levels next year.
I’ve heard it’s really competitive to get into medical school in the UK, so I’ve been working on my English and building my CV. I set myself a challenge of learning 10 new English words a day and I’ve done voluntary work for five or six different organisations.
For several months, I worked with the Refugee Council in Yorkshire as a project worker. I helped Syrian refugees who are being resettled here settle into their new lives. I saw them and remembered what it was like when I first arrived. I told them not to worry about anything; here in Britain they will be able to survive and live, and we will help them.
It was very difficult to work, study and look after my family at the same time so after a while I decided to focus on my studies full time so I can pursue my dream of becoming a doctor. When I came here I said I wanted to show the British people that I was more than a refugee.
Being resettled here means my family has been reborn; we’ve come back to life. One of my brothers is hoping to be a lawyer one day and my mum is hoping to do a Masters and then PhD in Biology. She’d love to be a Biology teacher one day. My youngest brother Hamza is in Year 7 at school. He’s doing so much better now. The doctors are hoping that we’ll be able to stop his treatment in September.
I miss my friends and family who we’ve left behind. I think about them every day. You can’t forget your land; it’ll always be in your heart and I know there are a lot of people like me who need help and a safe place to go to. There are people like my brother Hamza, who need urgent medical attention. It’s really important that the great countries of the world, like Britain, do everything they can to help.
If we hadn’t been able to the UK my brother might not have been alive. My family and my future would’ve been destroyed.
My experience has meant that I now realise that nothing is impossible, and I’m willing to fight to achieve my dreams.
I have a message up on my bedroom wall that I wrote that to remind myself where I want to be in 10 years’ time.
It just says, in the future, my name will be Dr Ayham.