First Syrian refugee family says ‘Thank you, Leeds’
Or, at least, of the majestic homeland he knew before the bullets and bombs started raining down.
The dad-of-three says his city Quneitra - which lies 40 miles south-west of Damascus and is a key strategic zone in the deadly Syrian conflict - has other similarities to Leeds.
“The trees remind me of home,” he says.
He admits he will often be taking a wander down to the brook near his new home - a small flat in north Leeds - in the inevitable moments of wistfulness that accompany every immigrant journey.
But Imad’s 3,000-mile journey from Syria to Leeds has been more traumatic than most - and ‘home’ has been a very loose term for his family for the past three years.
He can remember very clearly the moments that sealed his decision to leave his mother country in 2012.
“We were all asleep in our house, and there was a big explosion, only 10 metres away from where we were.
“All the windows smashed and the splinters were all over us.
“My son Amir was hurt when shrapnel from the explosion hit his forehead.
“This was our home, our protection.
“That was the moment I decided to leave.
“I thought ‘there’s no life here for us anymore’.
“Killing on the streets, that was it. This is something I saw every day for months.”
Imad worked as a blacksmith in Syria before civil war tore his country and his life apart following the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
The Quneitra province - near the Israeli occupied Golan Heights - is considered a “gateway” into Damascus from the west and has frequently been the site of clashes between various rebel factions and Government forces.
Earlier this year, a rebel alliance began an offensive against Government forces and the area around the town of Quneitra came under heavy bombardment.
For Imad, his wife, and three young sons, Quneitra wasn’t a war torn wasteland - it was home.
Pre-2011, the family lived a comfortable life, in a large house which would probably dwarf the modest Leeds flat they moved into just a month ago.
None of the family, says Imad, had any political affiliations or were involved in demonstrations or political activities.
However he, along with many other young men, was detained and interrogated for two months without charge.
It was after he was finally released that the bombing which injured Amir and damaged the house began.
Asked if he lost any family members to the violence in Syria, Imad suddenly clams up and it is obvious that the pain is still very raw.
The family initially fled to Lebanon, surviving in unimaginably difficult conditions in a refugee camp.
Lebanon is tiny. Its small population of four million has been virtually doubled by the influx of Syrian refugees.
“In Lebanon I tried to make a living. I wanted to work, I wanted to support my family. I wanted to have a house there and pay rent. I wanted to put my kids in schools. I wanted to do a lot of things but I couldn’t,” explains Imad.
“There were no jobs left, for the Lebanese or the Syrians.
“We thank them that they took so many refugees, but they haven’t got the funds or the resources to provide the living for all these people.”
After more than three years in the Lebanese refugee camp, Imad applied for United Nations resettlement and, after multiple interviews and health checks, was eventually granted permission to come to the UK.
“They scared us at the beginning. They said the treatment of refugees in the UK is not good,” he recalls.
“But when we arrived here, we were amazed.
“The people of the UK were fantastic.”
Imad’s family is the first to arrive in Leeds as part of a resettlement program which will see the city welcome 200 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
While we talk, his three sons - Amir, six; Saif, five and Reda, three - entertain visitors by singing their newly learned song ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’.
They are clearly happy young children getting to know their new surroundings and enjoying school.
Imad’s wife makes tea for the guests and flicks through photos to find some of the family back in Syria to share.
The tiny bag has just a handful of pictures, no doubt salvaged from the ruins, a sad reminder that the family fled with barely a suitcase of belongings
The young mum is shy and won’t be interviewed or photographed, but we are told that she is especially happy and proud of the boys’ new school, which has pictures up saying ‘welcome to the Syrian refugees’.
The family’s newcomer status is betrayed by a total lack of clutter, unheard of in a family with three children under seven, and rooms with clothes still unpacked and empty wardrobes.
Despite the trauma of his own experience, Imad is at pains to point out that he actually considers himself among the lucky ones.
“The plane was provided, they provided us with a home, the papers to stay for five years and the schools for the kids. But the guys who go to Greece, they put their lives at great risk.
“My cousin tried to make it that way two months ago and he died. The whole family, including a five year old, drowned in the sea.
“People are desperate.
“That’s why they take a small boat and cross seas and oceans.”
Asked what he thinks of Leeds, Imad says it is “a nice city”.
“I have found the people very respectful,” he says.
“If you are rich you can live here, if you are poor you can still live here.
“The children are happy. And the main thing is you feel safe, settled, You don’t feel you are a stranger here.
“Shukrann (Thank you) Leeds.
“Thank you very much - and Happy Christmas.”
YORKSHIRE’S ‘1,500’ PLEDGE
The Yorkshire and Humber region has agreed to take around 1,500 Syrian refugees over the next two to three years as part of the Government’s commitment for the UK to bring in 20,000 people.
Migration Yorkshire is the organisation which will be co-ordinating the response for all the local authorities in our region.
More than 100 families have arrived already in six areas.
Earlier this year, Church of England bishops accused the Government of an “increasingly inadequate” response to the migrant crisis and called for at least 50,000 Syrian refugees to be taken in over the next five years.
‘I FEEL VERY PROUD OF LEEDS - OUR CITY OF SANCTUARY’
Leeds city Council has made a decision to welcome up to 200 Syrian refugees to the city over the next two years.
One group of 25 arrived last month and another cohort arrived just last week.
Councillor Debra Coupar, the council’s executive board member for communities, is part of the task force overseeing the resettlement of the families, and she believes she has the backing of existing residents.
“Leeds has a proud history of welcoming refugees to the city, going back to before the Second World War,” she said.
“It’s become very much well known as a City of Sanctuary.
“I feel very passionately that the city is the right place to welcome people.
“I feel very proud that I come from Leeds, where we are very welcoming of these refugees and we are able to do our bit to help them out of the very desperate situations that they are in.”
A team of professionals is helping find the right accommodation for the new refugee families.
“We want to be able to settle them into the community and for them to be able to then start to stand on their own feet and actually make themselves a new home in a new country,” says Coun Coupar.
Asked how much Leeds taxpayers will have to subsidise the cost of welcoming its new Syrian citizens, Coun Coupar explained that the resettlement scheme itself has been fully funded by the Home Office, “so it’s not coming out of local taxpayers’ pockets”.
She added: “However we have as a council made an amount available to organisations in the third sector and the voluntary sector to be able to apply for if they are helping asylum seekers and refugees in the city with certain needs over and above what the Government are paying for.”
The council’s executive board recently approved £100,000 of funding for charities helping refugees settle in the city.
Coun Coupar said the support from Leeds people – both in spirit and in practical help like donations of clothes and essentials for sending to the refugee camps in Calais and Greece – had been “remarkable and overwhelming”.
She explained that most of Leeds’s new arrivals will “ordinarily be helped to return home” after five years.
However, global events will determine what the city does next.
“Most people want to return to their homeland, to the country they have had to leave through no fault and no choice of their own,” she said.
“We have accepted them for five years, but we don’t know what the next years will hold for Syria, unfortunately.”