Talal Alkurdi fled the war in Syria. He talks to Chris Bond about his journey, his country and his new life in Leeds.
TALAL Alkurdi looks down at his dainty coffee cup as if hoping to find an answer in the dark, tar-coloured liquid. “If I went back to Syria now then I would probably be killed,” he says, sadly.
We are sitting in a tidy living room along with his wife Suzan and their two children, Alaa, 14, and 12 year-old Maya. Like so many families from Syria they are polite and welcoming. But like so many Syrian families they are now refugees, driven from their homeland and forced to rebuild their shattered lives in a strange new country.
Home for them now is a terraced house in south Leeds. It’s on a quiet, unremarkable street, but for Talal and his family it’s the chance of a new life.
They, however, are among the lucky ones. Since the violence in Syria first erupted in March 2011, the country has been crippled by civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 200,000 people have been killed in clashes between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the rebels who want him out.
With the situation in Syria deteriorating even further and no end to the fighting in sight, this has triggered a mass migration in recent months that has seen men, women and children risk their lives in a desperate bid to escape persecution and violence.
The dreadful plight of these migrants was encapsulated by the harrowing image of a little boy washed up on the Greek island of Kos earlier this month – just one of the 2,500 people who have died this summer attempting to cross the sea to Europe.
Talal is one of those who has made the journey and lived to tell the tale.
He and his family lived in the eastern Gota – what was once a pleasant suburb of Damascus. He worked for a computer company and they enjoyed a comfortable life. But when the violence started he found himself a target for the regime simply, he says, for trying to help others.
“We helped people bring in food and medical supplies and we gave people somewhere to sleep. I will help anyone who needs these things and because I did this the government said I was a criminal.”
He says the situation in Syria before he left was horrific. “In Damascus, women and children were killed, shops and houses were burned.” He says the slogan “al-Assad or we burn the country” was written on the walls in the city.
Talal’s company employed around 30 people, half of whom he says are now dead. He claims that he was arrested twice by the police in Damascus. “The first time they kept me for two weeks. The beat me, they kicked me and punched me. They used sticks and knives, anything,” he says.
He was eventually released but spent a month recovering in hospital. Fearing for his life, in October 2013 he left Syria, leaving behind his wife and daughters, and found his way to Turkey.
“In Turkey it was very hard. The police there stopped me five times at the airport and they took my passport which was a big problem.”
This meant he couldn’t leave Turkey legally, which forced him into the clutches of the people traffickers – who demanded huge sums of money. He was put on a small boat with a group of fellow refugees. “I was in a group of 20 people. There were three women and two kids and we were at sea for five hours.”
They reached Greece and Talal made his way to Athens and then on to Milan. From here he travelled by bus to Paris before catching a train to Calais.
However, once there he found himself joining the growing ranks of migrants camped in and around the French port. He and a group of Syrians tried to get to England by stowing on board trucks and lorries bound for England. After numerous failed attempts, in May last year he eventually managed to hide in a lorry travelling through the Channel Tunnel. His first night on English soil was spent sleeping in a police station. From there he was moved to a holding centre before being taken to Birmingham and then Huddersfield.
In October last year he was moved to Leeds, bringing an end to his epic, 2,300 mile journey which cost him 15,000 Euros. In January this year, after receiving help from the British Red Cross, he was reunited with his wife and daughters who he hadn’t seen for 15 months.
His joy though was tempered by the knowledge that back in Syria his two brothers had spent 12 months in jail after being arrested, leaving his mother and father alone. Talal hopes to see them again but knows it will be difficult. All he can do is wait, hope and pray.
He says that people in Leeds have been welcoming and he now wants to improve his English and get a job. His two daughters have settled in at their new school and have learned to speak English and make new friends.
But when I mention whether he would like to return to Syria he shakes his head. With Islamic State now controlling swathes of the country and President Assad still clinging on to power Talal says he cannot imagine returning.
“There is nothing in Syria for me. My home is broken, my company has been taken away. Everybody loves their country but now I don’t like my country... It’s a very sad story.”
For him and his family, at least, there is the hope of a brighter future.