Wissam is frustrated.
We’re sitting in a cafe in Edinburgh talking about how he came here from Damascus. Our interview was less interview, more informal chat – aided by his friend Keefe who he met through Re-Act.
He jokes that she is his translator – she shakes her head and explains that they have been teaching each other one word here and there.
He twirls his finger by his head – “You remember?” – “Majnun,” she replies.
“You know majnun?” Wissam asks me. I nod. Majnun is Arabic for crazy and used to be one of my favourite words.
Wissam says his English has been getting better since he arrived in the UK in June, and looks to Keefe for confirmation.
She agrees he has been coming on leaps and bounds before proceeding to berate him for not attending the classes she suggested.
He has the good sense to look contrite.
It makes for an interesting dynamic between the three of us – with Wissam’s broken English, my broken Arabic and poor Keefe in the middle trying to help us both communicate.
Somehow we get through it all, and have a good time doing so.
I joke that I can tell he’s Syrian given the amount of sugar he just dumped into his coffee. He comes back with the amount of salt that goes in the fuul.
We chat about where we both lived in Damascus, how hard Arabic is to learn. How much harder Chinese is to learn.
Wissam is friendly, open and full of interesting tales that I wish we could have delved into deeper – more motivation to get my Arabic back up to scratch.
But for all the smiles, and joking back and forth with Keefe – at one point she slaps his hand out his mouth to stop him chewing on his nails “I have his mother’s permission” – this is a man who has been through a lot to get here.
And now as he watches and waits for his country men/women/children who have been taken from camps in Lebanon and Jordan to arrive he has just one question: Why?
Why not my family? The people in the camps he says, they don’t have to worry about terrorists coming after them. The people in Syria, they could be killed at any moment – either from Bashar or the rebels.
Why not my family? He shows me a picture of his little sister, just five years old. She calls him every night, crying. She wants to be where he is, safe. He cries every night.
Why not my family? Wissam has refugee status in the UK, and can legally get a job. I can earn money. I don’t want more money from the government. I will have a job and my family can stay in my flat and I will look after them.
Why not my family?
Keefe and I try to explain. That while the war goes on we can’t take refugees from inside the county. That his family would have to make it out of Syria to be considered.
It’s the truth, but it doesn’t make it easy to say to Wissam – or easy to hear for a brother whose little sister is crying every night.
Wissam lived on a street in Damascus that was pro-Assad. He was too scared to tell anyone he disagreed – “they would have killed me”.
An 27-year-old accountant for a large cleaning supplies firm, Wissam didn’t want to be involved in the fighting.
When he was attacked, stabbed four times by a drunk man who had followed him home one night, he got spooked.
He had spent too long refusing to fight for Bashar in a massively pro-Assad neighbourhood of Damascus.
He left Syria mid-February this year. Took a flight from Lebanon to Turkey.
He stayed working a small job in Turkey for three months but it was too hard to live there he tells me.
Like others I have spoken to he cites the language barrier as the major obstacle to continuing a life in Turkey – “They don’t speak English, they don’t speak French, they don’t speak Arabic – just Turkish.”
His cousin paid $1500 to get him passage in a boat to Europe.
It took three attempts.
The first time he tried the voyage he was one of 53 that got stranded for 10 hours when they ran out of petrol. Picked up eventually by Turkish security he spent three days in jail for his troubles.
A second attempt saw him and 41 others drifting for five hours.
Third time lucky, in a boat of 40, he made it into Greece.
And then, he started walking.
He walked for a month and a half.
Through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France.
Calais, the infamous jungle, is where he ended up. He hated Calais. He had to sleep rough, and the people there – not the French or the police he says – the eastern Europeans, were very unfriendly towards refugees.
After 10 days he had reached his limit.
He jumped onto the roof of a moving lorry, cut a small hole in the tarpaulin, and stowed away as the vehicle docked with the ferry across to the UK.
Once he was sure he was in Dover he got the drivers attention and got him to – reluctantly – drop him off with the police.
After a long journey to get here, he describes being in the UK as “easy.” He was moved to London, Cardiff and Gloucestershire while his application for a visa was processed.
After finally receiving full refugee status he was free to move as he pleased in the UK. He chose to come to Edinburgh – because he had an uncle who had lived here five years previously, and because he had visited and found it much nicer than London, which he says is “too busy.”
Hard to fault that.
Being a refugee in the UK though, comes with its restrictions. He cannot go back to Syria to see his family.
It is his “dream” that they could come here instead.
Life as a Syrian outside of Syria is hard.
He gestures to our group.
“Maybe now, you and me and Keefe all like this happy and then …”
Life in Syria can be taken away in a moment. He’s lost track of the amount of funerals he attended.
“My uncle killed, all my friend killed, funerals all the time, my neighbours killed.”
” I remember my friends, my house, my street .. it’s very, very hard.”
“You could go live in Spain, or Turkey without any problems because you know Edinburgh is good.”
“If you go live in another country and you see Edinburgh, every day is fighting – this is very bad. ”
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