22 Apr 2015

Haunted by memories of a journey from Damascus to Bradford

Drenched in April sunshine, a nine-year-old girl is running down a suburban side-street in Bradford. Her big brother has just picked up from school – the first school she’s been to in two years.

Masa is scooped into the arms of Mirvat, her mum, who’s been waiting excitedly to welcome her home. They escaped from the horrors of Syria in 2013 and now they are safe. But this is a family haunted by memories of what they went through to get here.

Having run out of places to run to in Syria, Mirvat fled first to Lebanon, then to Egypt, then west, by road into Libya. Her 20-year-old son had been working there. But then Libya was enveloped by intense civil war. Her son was kidnapped by gun-toting militiamen. Tripoli was bombed, gunmen were everywhere and Syrian refugees were not welcome.

Mirvat (pictured below) decided to flee once again. This time, the destination was Europe.

Upstairs, the decor in flat no.8 is spartan: a sofa, three kitchen chairs and a table. On a broken TV, two photographs, Mirvat’s mother and father; still in Damascus. She fumbles for her mobile phone and starts playing a video. She says it’s the first time she’s dared to watch it for months.


People smugglers

The battered fishing trawler is packed to the gunnels with people. Seven hundred of them. The camera pans down to the hold and peeks in; African faces peer out from below. Up on deck they are Arabs, mostly from Syria. They’d paid people-smugglers up to $1,500 a head for their passage.

They’d set off from the Libyan port of Zuwara at 3am. They were making good headway towards Italian waters. Shortly after Mivat filmed this scene, the boat’s captain got lost. A passing tanker spotted them and in desperation he rammed it. Those in the hold panicked, fled up onto the deck and threw themselves into the water.

“It was chaos,” said Mirvat. “Mayhem. It was like watching a movie. I remember feeling guilty that I’d brought my daughter. I was sitting there, cuddling her, and waiting to drown. If I die, I die. I remember that I was just preparing myself to die,” she said, wiping away tears. “I do not wish for anyone, even my bitterest enemy, to take such a risk, especially if they have children.”

They survived. The oil tanker took them to Italy, and within a few days Mirav and Masa were in Calais. There, they paid another $1,500, this time to be smuggled under the Channel on a refrigerated truck.


Rushed to hospital

Once in Britain, the asylum seekers banged on the sides of the lorry, which stopped. Minutes later, British police opened the doors. Mirav was rushed straight to hospital. Being in that truck made me feel very unwell, she said.

“Sitting here in your new flat in Bradford, with the sun streaming in, do you think it was worth it?” I asked? Tears welled up in Mirav’s eyes once again. She almost said no. She thought for a moment. “I am happy,” she said, “just seeing Masa back at school and coming home laughing.”

Mirvat has now been reunited with Ala’a, released for a US$7,000 ransom paid by his father. He followed his mother across the Mediterranean in another death-trap trawler. In Calais he tried for months to find a way over or under the Channel, to Britain, to Mirvat and Masa. His journey finally ended just a few months ago, when he too got across in the back of a meat truck.

The family has begun a new life here now, among a small number of Syrian refugees to have been granted asylum in Britain. They are incredibly grateful and talk of the compassion and warmth of the people they’ve met. “But one day,” says Mirvat, “inshallah, we can go home to Syria.”

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