Aamer keeps a handwritten note in his bedroom. He found it alongside a donated microwave when he moved to Edinburgh last month. It was a welcome note, whose anonymous writer had wished Aamer all the best in his new life in Scotland.
Aamer is not one of the Syrians who have been flown to Scotland from the camps in Lebanon and Jordan. He fled Syria at the start of 2012 and hasn’t been back since.
Over the course of three years he spent time in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, England and now, having finally received his refugee status, has decided to make new life for himself in Scotland.
His journey is one of a young, relatively well-off Syrian man, studying computer science at university to a refugee, separated from his family and starting anew in a foreign country.
Aamer is from Homs, where he lived with his mother, father and brother in one of their two houses in the city.
In 2011 he joined with other Syrians in the wave of anti-government protests – peaceful but provocative to the Assad regime.
For the first six to eight months, he said, these protests were just chanting in the street, calling for change.
Soon enough it turned violent.
It was the same day as he buried a friend who had lost his life in the protests that Aamer came face to face himself with the brutal crackdown of Assad’s forces.
While chanting in Hom’s city centre the protesters came under attack from the army. A friend of his was shot in the arm and Aamer stayed with him to try and help.
They were picked up by the army; Aamer was taken to the infamous Tadmour prison and his friend to hospital – it was the last time he saw him alive.
At Tadmour Aamer was beaten badly during his month in captivity. But he described himself as one of the luckily ones. At night he said, they would take prisoners away to beat and torture them. Some never returned.
When he was freed he left his family in Homs, fearing he may be arrested again. He fled to another city and took up work in a steel factory.
It was during this time that his family’s home was destroyed and they moved to their other residence in the city.
While making the risky journey back to check if his family were ok Aamer got stopped at an army checkpoint and told he had a week to present himself for military service.
The regime that had beaten and tortured him was now telling him he would be forced to fight for them. For Aamer there was “no way” he wanted to join Assad’s army.
He told the officer he would present himself the next day. Instead he booked himself a flight from Lebanon to Egypt and fled the country.
In Egypt he stayed with his uncle, and worked in a Syrian sweet shop. He convinced his family to join him in summer 2013 – not long after a neighbour told them their second home had been destroyed.
Aamer however, had a problem. When he had run from Syria his passport was close to expiring. A trip to the Syrian embassy in Egypt raised the spectre of army conscription again – officials there told him he was wanted back in Syria.
With 15 days left on his passport Aamer was stuck. He couldn’t renew it but if he stayed in Egypt on an expired passport there was every chance the Egyptian authorities could deport him back to Syria.
Forced to run again he bought a ticket to Turkey and left three days later. That was in autumn 2013 – he hasn’t seen his family in person since.
For his first five months in Turkey he tried to work and study but found the language barrier made it hard to integrate. A Syrian friend there convinced him to come with him on the dangerous journey to Europe.
At the beginning of 2014 they made three attempts to walk across the border into Greece, making it roughly 100km each time.
But each time they were caught by border police and sent back to Turkey.
In February they decided to take a more dangerous path, and make the crossing by boat.
Their first attempt was on a small boat, at midnight, crammed in with 35 people. The engine cut out in the middle of nowhere and for six hours those on board faced a nightmare.
Listen to Aamer describe those hours stranded on the boat.
Eventually they were found by Turkish boats and returned, to spend two days in jail for their attempt.
It was a harrowing experience, and one Aamer thought he might not live through.
Just a few days after that, he and his friend decided to risk the passage again. But this time, rather than pay 1000 euros for the small boat – which, surprisingly Aamer said was returned to them after they failed to reach Greece – they paid 1500 to take the faster, “safer” passage.
This attempt was successful, a half hour journey with just 18 others on aboard, all Syrian men.
Aamer believed it to be safer because it had a cabin they could stay in for the journey. But my friend Helena, who is working on Lesbos said too often refugees are tricked into paying extra for these kinds of boats when the reality is they can be more dangerous – trapping you inside if it was to sink.
Thankfully, that was not Aamer and his friend’s fate. They presented themselves to the Greek authorities and were given 6 months leave to stay.
While the other 16 made their way deeper into Europe, Aamer and his friend stayed behind in Athens, living off his savings while they waited for his friend to be transferred money from back home.
After 11 months in Greece, saving up money, they were able to secure a flight to Heathrow and upon their arrival claim asylum.
They arrived in the UK at the start of this year. And after interviews and applications and being moved from London to Stockport, spilt up – his friend stayed and he was sent to Liverpool – and reunited on the same street in Salford, both men finally got given their refugee status in the UK.
Aamer’s took two months longer than his friend’s, but as soon as he had it he made plans to move to Edinburgh. In the long term he wanted to study at Edinburgh University – “because it is in the best 10 or 20 in the UK” and also because he had heard a lot – presumable positive – about the “Scotch people.”
Manchester was too big a city for him, he wanted somewhere smaller and Edinburgh was his best fit.
Since moving here last month he has been working on making a home for himself.
“Every Sunday I go to Sunday market and by second hand stuff, very cheap and can find [things] good condition.”
He is also on the hunt for a job, and to achieve his aim is taking three English lessons a week to improve his language skills.
Being able to speak English well is vital to him.
Most of all he has been overwhelmed by the warm welcome he has received here in Scotland.
This was part one of Aamer’s story, to hear more about his time in Syria and his thoughts on the crisis click here.