THE UNCONVENTIONAL JOURNEY OF A REFUGEE: Syrian, Shadi Kanjo speaks candidly about his experiences as a refugee, asylum seeker and UK citizen.
By Gerard O’Connor Fri 04 May 2018
The Syrian conflict has torn the country apart, displacing millions and killing thousands. Many Syrians seek refuge in neighbouring countries, but many more pay smugglers to take them to Europe risking their lives and deportation in the process.
Sitting in an office in Liverpool, Shadi, accompanied by his Mother, Balkis, speaks articulately and with passion about his new life in Britain.
Six years ago, Shadi felt his life was shattered when war forced him to leave Syrian capital Aleppo, fleeing his country and leaving his mother and wife behind. Shadi knew he had to be brave and make a new life for his family away from the war-torn region. Shadi and his family had a good life and describes Aleppo as a “vibrant & cultural city”. He worked long hours to provide for his family and they lived in a nice apartment near the city centre.
Once the Arab Spring happened in 2010, Shadi knew he had to leave to find a better and safer life for his family. It took Shadi nearly 2 years to make the brave decision to leave Syria. He used his own resources and borrowed money from friends and family to ensure he had the funds to make it to Europe.
“It was very difficult to leave everything in Syria behind,” says Shadi, “War and fighting was not an option, it took me 2 years to make the decision to leave Syria”.
Night Support Worker: Shadi Kanjo
Shadi’s journey to the UK is not the typical example of what most refugees experience when fleeing their homeland. He travelled to Turkey following the many thousands who have fled the region. His goal was originally to get to Germany via Greece. The Greek island of Lesbos is the closest to the shores of Turkey, so thousands of people arrive on flimsy, rubber boats each day. Shadi boarded one of these crammed boats with men, women, and children - This would be the first time that he would question his decision to flee his country. The boat they travelled in capsized and many people nearly drowned along with Shadi. He describes getting to land in Greece as “the first real moment of happiness”.
On arrival in Greece he was put in contact with a smuggler in Athens. Most refugees can be held in Greece in makeshift camps due to deportation or for financial reasons. Smugglers generally charge refugees a substantial fee for transportation to various parts of Europe. The most common route is via car or bus, but this comes with its risks as you pass the many checkpoints to get to countries such as Germany or France. It was in Athens that the smuggler advised Shadi that he thought there was a good chance he could arrange for him to fly to the UK. He explained that due to his pale skin and good English he believed that he was less likely to be stopped going through customs. Shadi agreed and made arrangements to pay the £15,000 for flights and documentation which he had borrowed from numerous friends and family.
Shadi left for the UK on a flight via Belgium. He explains that “he felt a sense of relief once he passed through customs in Belgium”, all he had to do now was board his flight to the UK. He spent his first night in the UK at Heathrow Airport. He explained to border control that he was an asylum seeker from Syria and that he was there because we had no other choice. After taking some basic details and using a telephone interpreter, the immigration staff who were dealing with it told him he would have to wait for further interviews. He was told that he would have to convince other government agencies of his legitimacy before an application for asylum could be considered. After hours of interviews Shadi was finally released and he could begin his asylum process.
”I was very fortunate,” he says. “They believed my story and I was then transferred to a hotel outside London. Shadi explained that this was not a hostel it was a hotel with other paying British guests. Following a few days at the hotel he was transferred to Manchester where he waited for a month before he received confirmation of his NASS accommodation which was based in Liverpool. The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) is a section of the UK Visas and Immigration division of the Home Office. It is responsible for supporting and accommodating people seeking asylum while their cases are being dealt with.
Through this period asylum seekers are provided money to cover basic living costs, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. Shadi, who knew nothing about Liverpool understood that he was luckier than other refugees because of his good level of English. He explained to his house manager that he wanted to keep himself occupied so he referred him to Asylum Link who accept volunteers and assist asylum seekers in the area. He committed to volunteering with them and has since amassed over 1800 hours of voluntary service.
He explains that he felt he had to be strong and every day, put a smile on his face while all he could think about was his wife and mother in Aleppo.
After a short period in NASS, Shadi was granted leave to remain and at this point was given 28 days to find suitable accommodation. He was referred to New Start, New Start is a Liverpool based supported housing company working with homeless people across the city. They provide a range of support schemes like the New Roots Project, which is a resettlement project set up in 2013 for refugees and refugee families, providing housing and assisting them to access mainstream services once their leave to remain has been granted.
While living with New Start, Shadi was supported in all aspects of his life. Looking to gain new skills and establish a settled life in the UK. He excelled and continued to volunteer for various organisations, Holt Road, Community Café, Asylum Link and FACT. It was the support from New Start and working in the community that gave him the purpose and ability integrate into British society. However, through this period Shadi could only think about his family and friends who were stuck in Syria.
He set about getting his mother to the UK and also with the help of New Start, arranging a family reunion with his wife. Today, Shadi, his wife Nesrin and mother all live in Liverpool. They are settled into their new lives in the UK although they regularly think of the challenges that they have faced.
Shadi’s story is inspiring, he has successfully transitioned from a New Start resident to a New Start employee. He is now a Night Support Worker and translator for the Syrian Project which New Start run as part of the SSHG (Sefton Supported Housing Group).
He says, “I just want to help people from my country and give something back to the UK because they have helped me so much”.
He has now set his sights on becoming a Social Worker while continuing his volunteering roles. He has experienced war, isolation and depression but feels that he can now settle in Liverpool and build a safe and secure life with his family.
The Greek Island of Lesbos where thousands of refugees have begun their journey across Europe.