Syria was once known for its rich cultural identity and thousands of historic sites that could be found across the country.
Today it’s widely associated with the refugee crisis and known for its four and a half years of war, witnessed by adults and children and still going on today.
The war in Syria has been raging for almost half a decade, claiming the lives of more than 250,000 people. Many people still find themselves living in the country torn apart by the war, while millions of others have fled the country to get away from the conflict.
These refugees are hoping to pursue their freedom and better their lives, as well as that of the next generation of Syrians. The war in Syria is showing no signs of ending, at least not anytime soon.
People are fleeing the country in an attempt to find the security they don’t have in their homeland and continue to follow the optimistic view they have of Europe.
Thousands of Syrians remain trapped in besieged areas in which even the most basic supplies are scarce, resulting in widespread malnutrition and starvation.
Millions of children are no longer able to attend school as many have been destroyed, and others have become temporary shelters for internally displaced families.
The healthcare system has suffered greatly over the past five years, with more than half of all public healthcare facilities destroyed, closed or damaged as a result of the war, leaving thousands of people without access to medical care.
Objects that are forcibly propelled at innocent and oblivious civilians is an operation that has become ubiquitous for the Syrian people, something that has become a news item for us but a personal experience for the citizens living in Syria.
The graphic images of mass destruction and injured civilians compared to the emotion we suffer from seeing these pictures doesn’t come close to revealing the horror that Syrians live through everyday, seeing their country destroyed right before their very own eyes.
The idea that these people could seek asylum to start a better life in a safe country, be offered potential work and education goes beyond the fear of the dangers they could be presented with when embarking on a journey to cross the borders into Europe.
I had witnessed how brutal and terrifying the government was. Anyone who spoke out against [the government] faced arrest or execution, especially if you were Kurdish like me.
Sleman Shwaish resonates with this prospect all too well, he found himself in the situation many current day refugees are experiencing. He fled Syria in 2012 and left his beloved homeland behind in a bid to start a better life in Europe.
Shwaish had just graduated from the Aleppo University, which is typically a time when the regime requires young individuals to join the Syrian army to serve their country.
With his past experience working as a first aider for the International Red Crescent in Syria, Shwaish had worked closely with war victims and had a clear first-hand account of the authorities’ cruel rule on the people.
He refused to be part of a machine that killed thousands of people, including people close to him: “I had witnessed how brutal and terrifying the government was. Anyone who spoke out against [the government] faced arrest or execution, especially if you were Kurdish like me”.
Kurds make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, mainly living along the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. They’ve had an increasingly significant influence on politics, especially against the rise of the so-called Islamic State, yet they have never obtained an official and permanent nation state.
These are a few of the reasons that set context for the tense relationship between Syrians and Kurds, especially when they are found to be meddling in the country’s political affairs.
“My father was imprisoned for two months after writing a piece criticising the government. Some of my family members still find themselves in jail because they refused to sign up [for the army].”
It was these ordeals that encouraged Shwaish to flee the country and look for his freedom in another. He fled Syria when he was 24 years old, an age that according to research is known as one of the major milestones in an individual’s life as it’s then when the most important life decisions and memories are made.
Upon arrival in the UK I was taken to a detention centre and was held there for a month. I felt like a criminal.
For Shwaish however, it was anything but a time he wants to remember. Instead of having graduated university with an agriculture and food sciences degree from the University of Aleppo in his pocket and having secured a permanent job, he found himself on a journey to flee his homeland and fight for his freedom.
He was left to take-off on this unknown journey alone, without having any support or guidance close to him.
He started his journey crossing into Lebanon, when he had given up his passport upon approach in order to travel from Turkey, to then subsequently claim asylum in the UK. “Upon arrival in the UK I was taken to a detention centre and was held there for a month. I felt like a criminal.”
After taking the courageous decision to leave his memories and homeland behind and stepping into unknown territory, good news was delivered to him soon after as he was accepted as a temporary refugee, with plans to apply for full residency in the future.
Swaish was forced to leave all his belongings behind, including exam certificates when he embarked on his journey to Europe, to prevent government officials from catching his refuge plans out.
He continued his studies once he arrived in England, graduating from Huddersfield University with a Master of Science in nutrition and food science. He has seen himself adapting to the British culture since arriving in 2012, with the help and support of refugee action groups.
One of the groups he’s closely worked with is Hand in Hand for Syria. The aid agency is known for its hands-on approach to victims of the conflict in Syria, especially as the current situation in Syria has become increasingly more concerning.
The ongoing war in Syria has resulted in catastrophic damage to the country’s infrastructure, the healthcare system, education system and to the daily lives of most people living in the country.
Although the Syrians who’ve arrived in the UK have taken the first steps in bettering their lives, there are still millions living in the war-torn country, experiencing the war everyday.
Five years of airstrikes, shelling, closures, food shortages and a lack of electricity has forced more than 4 million people to flee the country.
Around 13.5 million people inside Syria, more than half of the entire population of the country, are reliant on humanitarian aid for survival, which the charity are adamant to attend to.
“At Hand in Hand For Syria, we transport containers of donated aid from the UK every few months and we purchase the majority of our aid in Turkey where it’s cheaper. From there, the aid is taken out for distribution locally and given to our beneficiaries.”
Syria is a beautiful country with beautiful people. We can all change our lives for the better, despite all hardships. The people of Syria will never surrender.
For Sleman, his decision to flee to the UK has proved to be an advantageous step towards a better future. He has focused on improving his English language skills and has in turn been offered many opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise been able to experience.
He has since joined the Red Cross in Leeds, where he acts as an interpreter and is called in several times to help with refugees’ cases. It was dedication to these causes and the sense of responsibility he felt that encouraged him to take on various different voluntary roles within organisations.
The Red Cross marked its 150th anniversary two years ago and members of the organisation were invited to the Buckingham Palace garden party to celebrate the milestone and its service to the people in need.
Sleman’s service with the British version of the Red Cross and its sister organisation Red Crescent which he served for several years in Syria meant he had secured an invitation to celebrate his accomplishments.
He has continued to volunteer and is actively spreading the word about the situation in Syria.
He’s head of the Syrian Society at his university and holds numerous events to present the Syrian culture to everyone, events that include the annual International Food and Culture Festival, where individuals are invited to taste the finest Syrian foods and exchange cultures with the society.
He’s keen to teach people about Syria; the country’s beauty minus the war.
Although Sleman’s brothers and sisters fled the devastation to join him in England a couple of years ago, his parents and close friends are still living in Syria. Sleman, along with his family in England, are desperately hoping their parents will join them in England one day.
Until then, he’s focusing on bettering his life while also remembering those still living in the destruction.
He dreams of returning to his home country one day when it’s declared safe again, but for the moment he is focusing on his education and remains the president of the Syrian Student Society at his university, where he’s helping to educate people about Syria.
“Syria is a beautiful country with beautiful people. We can all change our lives for the better, despite all hardships. The people of Syria will never surrender.”