Coventry: A tale of two families
COVENTRY, U.K.— Hassan Ayo, an agricultural engineer and human rights trainer, and his wife Fatmah Mustapha, a teacher, have won the refugee lottery. They are two of just 250 Syrians refugees settled by the U.K. so far this year, though the country has pledged to resettle 1,000 Syrians by Christmas. They are also heartbroken and bitter. Their admittance to the U.K. came too late for their14-year-old daughter Sozdar. She died in Turkey on Dec. 4, 2014, just seven days after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed the U.K. had accepted their resettlement application.
“I didn’t lose my daughter in a war. I lost her in Turkey because they refused to treat her,” said Mustapha, 42, angrily.
Their misery began in 2012, when Islamic radicals targeted Hasaka, in northeastern Syria. On Dec. 12, 2012, the family escaped to Viransehir, across the border in Turkey. Sozdar, who had been happy and healthy, suffered an appendicitis attack. Complications followed, including heart problems. The family could not afford treatment. Despite repeated pleas to a hospital in Ankara, she was declined care.
“I told the doctor, ‘It is a small girl. Why can’t you help her?’ ” recounts Mustapha. “Children of war die waiting for governments to take them in.”
In Coventry, the family finally found help — and more distress. Mustapha was diagnosed with lymphoma shortly after arriving on Feb. 12, 2015. The treatment is going well and she praises the British medical system, but she feels bleak.
“I miss my daughter every day,” she says. “Adapting to this new life is difficult. I am lonesome and the bureaucracy is stifling. Nobody has come to my house for tea.”
As Kurds, they have not found a ready group of friends among the Syrian community. Their two-storey house is cosy but needs to be painted. The walls are bare, except for a piece of cardboard with a Koranic verse taped to the wall.
The family’s two sons bring joy and energy into the room, and into their lives. Zana, 9, loves riding his scooter up and down the quiet street. He marvelled at the haul of candy he received on Halloween, when he dressed up as a wolf.
“Look at all my sweets,” he says, empty- ing a bag of mini-chocolate bars. Older brother Zerdsht smiles indulgently; he is among the best students in his class, according to his school report card. “I dream of being a doctor,” he says, placing a protective arm around his mother’s shoulders.
The family flips through images on their cellphones of their lost daughter, playing the guitar, and dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing. Mustapha softly cries. “Despite everything, we are hopeful for our future,” says Ayo, who now volunteers at the local refugee centre. “The U.K. is a better country than Turkey.” It was kill or be killed. So Majdy Al Kessem took a gamble. To avoid being forced to serve in the Syrian army, he fled on Jan. 10, 2015, leaving his pregnant wife with his parents in Idlib, a city close to the Turkish border.
Through smugglers, Al Kessem made the perilous crossing from Turkey into Greece. He thought his ordeal would be over once in Europe; however, border officials in Croatia, which has been hostile toward refugees fleeing Syria, fingerprinted him, and detained him for two months. In prison, Al Kessem became infected with tuberculosis and suffered a head injury following an altercation with a guard. When he was finally released, officials told him he had a week to leave the country.
He made it to the United Kingdom on June 3, paying smugglers to enter illegally. However, his asylum claim has been rejected because, under the European Union’s Dublin Agreement, Croatia is considered his “first safe haven” and is obligated to process his refugee claim.
“It is ridiculous,” says Al Kessem, who is appealing. “How can a country that put me in jail be considered safe?”
While Germany suspended the Dublin Agreement for Syrians in August, the U.K. did not.
Ironically, Al Kessem would make an excellent new citizen. He speaks fluent English, has a degree from Aleppo University, is young and healthy, and has joined a Syrian refugee support group.
And he cannot go back. Idlib is occupied by insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda. “I worry about my family every day. I would like to bring my wife and little boy here,” he says, showing off a photo of his new son on his cellphone, who he hasn’t yet seen.