As The Bombs Fall, A Refugee’s Tale

The nightmares come not just from the echoes of bombs, but from the fearful memories of arrest and torture at the hands of the Assad regime.

D. never sleeps for more than three hours.

In some dreams, he looks around and sees himself and the people around him drenched in blood.

In another dream, he is at home in the north of Syria, near Aleppo, and a missile hits his house. Everyone is hurt, screaming and bleeding. He wakes up shouting and crying. Sometimes the dreams come every three or four nights, sometimes every night. When he awakes, he is unable to fall back asleep.

He wakes up angry; angry at the destruction of his country, and that he had to flee for his life; angry at his separation from his wife, G., who took care of him in Syria, dressing, bathing and cooking for him, helping him to overcome the limitations posed by the hemiplegia that polio left him with after it ravaged his body when he was a child.

G. remained in Syria, and D. had hoped that he could bring her over when he arrived in England and his asylum claim was granted; in possession of a government-issued ID card granting him refugee status, D. could begin the process to bring her over on an airplane, rather than huddled in a truck. But, inexplicably, he was told to wait: his case was still being considered. As the fighting worsened, she fled, and is now one of the few female Syrian refugees huddled in the freezing cold of the Calais camps.

He wakes up angry at the lack of that ID, and angry at the destitution and isolation he faces as an asylum seeker. Sitting in his dingy, stuffy room in Plymouth, a city in the south of England, D. looks at his letters from the Home Office, again and again, and waits for their decision — their verdict on his story, on his life.

He wakes up angry at his past. The nightmares come not just from the echoes of bombs, but from the fearful memories of arrest and torture at the hands of the Assad regime; he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But most of all, he wakes up angry at his isolation. After a harrowing four-month journey, including a leaky boat across the dangerous Mediterranean, after sheltering at night in the forests, barely eating, walking to the Calais border on the shoulders of fellow refugees, after hiding, shivering and wet, in a dripping freezer truck, D. was pulled by police from a truck between Dover and London. He spent days in a crowded police holding cell, and weeks at a dangerous hostel, before he was moved here to Plymouth: first to the second floor of a crumbling, filthy house where he couldn’t move to reach the bathroom or kitchen without extreme difficulty, and then, only after protest, to the ground floor.

In Syria, D. had driven a car specially adapted to his limited mobility, but here, he fights his exhaustion to accomplish basic tasks. A friend comes to help him wash every 10 to 15 days; otherwise, he struggles to wash himself, and he never feels clean. He tries to cook and keep house, and depends on the inconsistent help of others to get to essential appointments, to buy groceries, or to pick up his meager living allowance. Due to his PTSD, he spends most of his time lying in bed.

He wakes up angry because, as a doctor put it in one assessment, “there are few assertive ways for D. to express his anger.” Offered services and therapy can’t be taken up by a man who can get nowhere on his own, who waited for months for an unpowered wheelchair that must be pushed by an attendant, which sits, clean and rarely used, in the corner of his room, because there is so rarely someone to help him. His life is whittled down to his phone, with which he can, occasionally, speak to his wife — a wife who is thinking of separating from him in frustration and confusion at the long, long delay.

Sometimes, he will throw a plate against the wall, and if it smashes into pieces, he feels better.

When he lived up those 22 grueling stairs, he thought of throwing himself out the window.

Last month, he tried to kill himself. “I feel like I am waiting for nothing,” he said.

Three nights ago, I attended a presentation on the refugees of Calais, where I met D.’s friend S., a Syrian Arab refugee who shares his rooming-house. Moved with passion to help, my husband and I asked S. how we could help him, and he told us that night that he was fine, but that we should meet D., who was burning to tell his story.

The following night, we went out in the dark, driving rain to visit him: a man in his early thirties, a refugee seeking asylum, a Syrian Kurd, from Aleppo, near where British bombs now fall. I met him in his Plymouth rooming-house, which he shares with S. and a few other refugees.

D. was sharp and animated, and watched my husband and I with his darting, bright eyes, sitting in his chair in his bare room. He clutched a nylon binder stuffed with the papers that govern his life; papers from the Home Office, the government ministry that pays for his housing, and decides whether he gets to stay or go; from the NHS, the health service that tries to treat his physical and psychological ailments; from the private agency that found his substandard housing. Though he is in his early thirties, his arms and legs are like hollow twigs, showing the disabling ravages of post polio syndrome, and also, in his case, of torture.

S. served us tea and translated: two years ago, the suburb of Aleppo where D. lived with his wife and family wasn’t safe, and he left, walking while supported by the shoulders of other refugees through the dangerous ocean crossing, and fleeing on foot to Europe, barely eating, sleeping in forests. He did not cross through the Calais camp, but snuck onto a lorry near the border, where he was caught by the police.

When D. arrived in the rooming-house assigned to him on a busy street, 15 months ago, its walls were peeling. The kitchen cabinets were falling off. Tables, chairs, and couches were stripped of their cushions with broken legs, in a scene reminiscent of the video game Fallout 4, where the player wanders around the remains of a nuclear wasteland. It was only fixed after several months, and mice still tunnel in through the baseboards.

refugee 2
D.’s rooming-house (Credit: Margaret Corvid)

Everything in D.’s life rests on the decision of the judge who will decide his fate. “I’m nervous, sometimes I’m crying, because the decision is not just for me but for my wife in Calais,” he said.

The state asks: is he a refugee or not? To find out, the investigators would have to travel to a war zone and find people from shattered neighborhoods that no longer exist. His fate is based on the judgment of those who never set foot in his homeland, and before that judgement, he is powerless.

Recently, D. found a new solicitor, better than the one he had contacted when he made his abrupt landing into the asylum system. The solicitor has at least shaken the system out of months of inaction; finally, D. has received a letter stating his case will be decided in the next two weeks.

What little my husband and I can do, we will. We passed our number to S. and D. and told them to reach out if they needed a lift in our car, which contains an ample boot that can accommodate a wheelchair.

But what we can do is not the point. Not all our efforts, nor all the efforts of the thousands of volunteers who have brought mountains of aid to Calais and other camps — aid that is never enough to counter disease and deprivation among the thousands who shiver there — can ever be the point. The point must be to stop the imperialist powers of the West, of Russia, and of the Assad regime from destroying their homes, and that means stopping a war that can never defeat ISIS.

D. showed me a picture of his wife, G. She was smiling and confident, wearing a fashionable hijab in a patterned grey, but with a cut above her eye from falling off a truck she tried to board to Britain. She is now huddled in Calais, a camp of 6,000 men, women and children, one of only a few Syrian women. “Sometimes she calls me crying, because as a woman, she is at risk,” said D. She does not feel safe, and D. cannot protect her.

“What can we do?” I asked him. “People need to look at us as human beings, not as a lower class of people, and to give us our safety,” he responded.

So, what can we do? We must fight for our governments to welcome the Syrian refugees, and those fleeing from other countries, from any country racked with war; they flee for the most dire and important of reasons. As the poet Warsan Shire said:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

We must welcome them, as countries, as communities and as individuals, because they are our fellow people — and because they believe in us, in the idea of our safe haven, free and peaceful, even as we drop bombs on their homes, even as our native-born sons shoot up their communities.

On Wednesday night, the British Parliament voted to drop bombs on Syria, and eight planes flew almost immediately from a Cyprus base to try their ill-fated attempt on ISIS, to be seen as doing something. Hilary Benn MP, the son of the great anti-war campaigner Tony Benn MP, had given a rousing speech to lead 66 Labour members of Parliament to vote to authorize the bombing, against the wishes of their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected by a Labour membership who love peace and hate austerity. The 66 traitors voted to drop more bombs on a country that has been torn apart by war; to bomb a country that ISIS wants to be bombed, to trigger its dark apocalypse. I have already seen pictures of children killed by those bombs.

As the bombs fall, S. and D. are waiting to see what happens, in Syria and in their own cases. My own frustration and anger is only a shadow of D.’s heartbreak. He told a counsellor that when he spoke of his plight, he felt a fire pouring out of his body. But when I asked him why he came to this country, D.’s answer, and S.’s, were the same: human rights.

Human rights. They believed in us, and they still do; according to a Plymouth city councillor, most Plimothians, like most people in Britain, want to take more refugees. The council has had an outpouring of people who want to help, but it is our governments, here, in the United States, in Europe, that can make the biggest difference. If we want to stop terrorism, our governments should honor the belief of the refugees in our justice and our mercy. What privilege we have, we cannot shed. It can only be used for good, in the spaces that the marginalized cannot reach. In my own privileged life, I have learned that speaking up in those spaces feels like laying one’s head down to be cut off, and if it feels this way, then it is probably the right thing to do. The Labour turncoats should have done that; should have laid their nebulous hopes for a Labour victory in 2020 down in aid of Syrian lives. But they didn’t. Shame on them.

In these same few days of fate and horror, Parliament has also declined to make it easier for the families of refugees settled here to join them. America still holds its choice about refugees in its hands, as a refugee-restricting bill that passed the House despite President Obama’s veto makes its way through the Senate. We must stop destroying the homes, economies and ecosystems of the Syrian people, and of every people raged by war and austerity. We must make it easier for refugees to enter our countries, not harder — and we should pave the way for their families to join them.

He wakes up angry, but D.’s anger does not turn him into a terrorist, as the right wing would say happens as naturally as a tadpole becomes a frog. His anger is eating him up inside, and I am ashamed at how my own adopted country, Britain, has failed him in his crushing wait, and how my country of origin, the United States, is poised to make that wait longer and harder for so many.

Next year, I will go to Calais to volunteer, to offer help to the people in that unofficial camp, full of hardship, struggle and strength, and to find stories to share. I will try to find G. if she is still there, but I hope more than anything that she and D. are reunited, and can build a new life together in safety.