Natali Hadad

I was born in a city called Homs in 1955. I went to school there and then moved to Damascus for my university studies in medicine. In Syria I worked as a microbiologist. I have been in the UK for one year. I entered the UK via the United Nations’ Refugee Resettlement Scheme and I am currently living with my daughter’s family. My daughter and her husband have been living in Cardiff for many years and they have four children. I have three sons who are in Europe.

Can you describe the house where you were born, your parents, siblings, any special childhood memories?

Of course, … [sighs] I have three sisters and we all lived at my parent's house, a rented property, which was very large with a very big garden full of fruit trees, jasmine flowers and roses of different colours. My dad used to take care of this garden and in the middle of the garden there was a small fountain [sighs]. My best time was when I was asked to fill the fountain with water. After filling it, I always used to walk in it [laughs]. …

In summertime, my parents and my siblings used to take a nap, but not me as I couldn’t sleep during daytime [laughs]. Therefore, my Dad made me a DIY tree swing by attaching ropes to our garden trees. That was my best time ever in that garden. My other favourite game was making a tent out of a big piece of cloth by placing it over the washing lines…

I used to visit the countryside where my aunt was living. There, I used to play with my cousins on a cart pulled by a horse. But I did not like the countryside a lot as the other children were reluctant to play with a child from the city…

Do you miss those days? What do you miss the most?

Yes, I miss my childhood days, the school days in particular and how we used to live. I always remember how I used to go to school with my friends and to return with them. I had three close friends from whom I was never parted [sighs]… The four of us were inseparable and we are still in contact with each other through Facebook and WhatsApp…

What made your friends so special?

We were neighbours, so our families knew each other and trusted each other. I was always allowed to play at my friends’ houses and they could play in my family’s garden. We were the same age, same class and knew a lot about each other… When my family moved to a new house, we still saw each other at school… Our relationship continued until after university … What makes those friends so special is that we share stories, secrets, names… We simply share one history [sighs]… We have a lot to say and to remember when we meet now…

What about your primary education and favourite subjects?

My primary school where my mother was a teacher was called Al Fatat. When I was four, I used to accompany my mother to school [laughs]. My best teachers were my mum and my friend’s mum [laughs] We were never hit or bullied by any teacher, the way some school children are nowadays. My favourite subject in school was maths; I didn't like Arabic language and its grammar…

Did you study anything about Europe?

During our secondary education we studied the locations of European countries, their borders, population figures and the exports and imports of each European country, so we had the basics. But we also used to watch TV channels that introduced Europe to us. There was a programme where we were introduced to a different western country each time. That programme helped us to form an idea about most of Western countries.

How were you admitted to the College of Medicine in Damascus University?

At high school, I scored high marks in science, biology and physics and was able to join a medical school in Damascus University [laughs]  I was so excited about having to move away from my family and my hometown Homs and to study in the capital city Damascus… It was a very new stage in my life… [sighs]. Fortunately, most of my friends from high school were admitted to the same university in Damascus [laughs] … So, we were together and lived at the same university halls. Two girls in each room was a fantastic opportunity for me and my best friend to live together [sighs].

How was life in Damascus in those days?

Those were very nice days… They still resonate in my memory… Each stage of our life has its special significance. For instance, childhood and adolescence is different from the university stage when we became more mature … I became more responsible for taking decisions away from my family and their interference. I specialized in Laboratory Diagnosis and I studied for six years… I studied medicine in the Arabic language…

Was it easy to get a job in your field after graduation?

I specialised in laboratory diagnosis for three years and opened a private lab in Damascus where I lived. I used to visit my family in Homs from time to time, but I was already settling in Damascus. I got married at the age of 28 and stayed in Damascus.

How did this stability change during wartime in Damascus?

When the war started there was some difficulty on the roads because buses and cars were stopped at the check points … For instance, to be able to arrive at work on time, I had to set off two to three hours earlier.

Can you describe life under war? How did you manage daily?

Natalie [whispers] ‘There were air raids’ and points to me to stop recording

So why did you decide to leave the country?

My sons were in Turkey and they decided to leave for Europe. My husband and I travelled to Turkey to see them before they left for good. By the time we arrived, they had already set off and reached Greece. We stayed in Istanbul, Turkey for some time hoping that my sons would be able to come and see us. One of my sons tried to return to Turkey but he failed because he had had to be smuggled out of Turkey. We decided to stay in Turkey as it was easier to keep in touch with them. After a while, they settled in Europe.

How long did you and your husband stay in Turkey?

My husband and I stayed in Turkey for four years. As soon as I arrived in Turkey, I applied for resettlement through the United Nations. I knew about this application through a person who used to work with me in a medical lab in Turkey. The day I applied was the last date for applications and I was lucky to be able to apply on time [sighs]. However, it took me four years to make it to the UK [laughs].

How was life in Turkey? Did you settle in well there?

I loved Turkey and I made friends there… When my husband died, one of my close friends invited me to stay with her and her daughter… I stayed with them and had a very nice time together with them. 

After waiting for four years in Istanbul, you were given the green light to travel to the UK. Did you know that you would end up in Cardiff?

The Home Office had been in contact with me for a long time before I left Turkey… ‘What facilities do you require in your new house? What about your husband's medical situation? Does he need any special equipment for the entrance or inside the house? The toilet? The shower? They required specific details about myself and my husband’s needs … 

Did you know that they would place you in Cardiff?

Yes, I had already explained that I wanted to join my daughter in Cardiff, and they were fine with that as they understood my situation, and at my age, being close to my daughter would make my life easier. So, I came directly to Cardiff.

Once you arrived in Cardiff was there any organization that helped you settle? Were you made welcome enough in Cardiff?

The council was always in contact and they used to send staff to introduce me to the city, the neighbourhood and the main facilities, routes and transportation etc. And… of course… I have always been made welcome. Now, after one year of living in the city, I don’t feel like a stranger…

Have you encountered any situation where you felt unwelcomed and discriminated against?

I haven't had any situation like this at all. On the contrary, I find people here very friendly. If I suddenly look someone in the eye, they smile at me and I like this attitude which is similar to saying 'Hello' in Islam. We have the famous Hadith that says ‘Your smile in the face of your brother is a form of charity’ but we don’t really practice this in the Middle East. We have only found it being practiced here in the West [laughs].

Have you encountered any difficulties with understanding how the system works and the bureaucracies?

Paperwork is important here. I have accumulated so many papers and I never throw a single sheet away. I have ended up with a bulky file! I haven't faced serious difficulties because my daughter has always been able to help and support me and currently I am living with her so no real difficulties so far, alhamdulillah (thanks to God).

What was the most difficult situation you went through here in Cardiff?

While we were in Turkey preparing to travel to the UK… my husband passed away and that was a tragic incident in the life of the family and in my life in particular. So, when I arrived in Cardiff [sighs], I was overwhelmed with grief that stayed with me for a long time… It almost felt like I was obsessed with the memory of my husband … I struggled to try to forget and cope with my new life… I am still trying. Everything else around me is fine and I feel comfortable in my daughter’s house.

How did you cope with learning English? And where are you now with your English?

English was one of my favourite subjects in school… English and Maths…Subhan Allah (glory be to Allah) I knew the basics like forming questions and some grammar … During my residency in Turkey, I studied English and Turkish… I studied English to prepare myself to live in Britain… but my Turkish improved faster as a result of communication… When I came here, I was a bit hesitant to use any of the words I had learned and was scared that I might not pronounce my words correctly… Later, I became braver in using English and I am so proud that it didn’t take me too long to be able to communicate [laughs].

As I am living with my daughter and her children with whom I share bedroom … I suggested to my six-year-old granddaughter that she try and use English with me as much as she can… and to assess my language as a teacher! My granddaughter loved the idea and was so excited to play the teacher's role with me [laughs]. For instance, she frequently asks me to 'read this word' and 'that word'… She uses her own books, bedtime stories and colouring books to teach me English [laughs].

Comparing your life here and there back home… Do you miss Syria? Do you think that Wales can be an alternative homeland?

[Sighs]… Yes, why not? Cardiff can be my home…

I don't miss Syria. I don't think I will go back to Syria as everybody has left. My parents passed away, my husband died, my friends and my relatives left the country. If I went back, I would be all alone. I have my daughter and grandchildren with me here and I am looking forward to meeting my sons in Europe and I feel happy and well settled in the UK.

As a highly qualified person who was working in a lab and in medicine do you miss that? 

I wish I could go back to work but because I am 65, I think it is impossible. [Sighs] I really wish I could do that work here…Laboratory Diagnosis [laughs].

Do you think that it is possible for Syrian refugees to integrate and settle well in the West?

This depends on them. Safety wise, it is perfect. And if they can cope with the new culture, it would be great. However, if they want to impose their own traditions on the host country it would be impossible to survive and cope. They will be always be annoyed and will annoy others.

What do you miss the most about Syria?

Pause, gesturing no, whispering ‘no’.

I don’t miss anything there… My friends and companions all left …All left

What about your house there…Do you miss it?

It is empty [sighs]. If I were to stay there it would be just me living in a very big house. I can’t imagine myself living on my own. People are very busy with their lives and I wouldn’t find anyone around to take care of me. This is essential for me … to be surrounded by my friends and relatives.

It sounds as if you went through so many things in Syria, Turkey and recently here in the UK. Where do you get your strength from? What makes you strong and hopeful?

Friends are a source of strength. Once I feel that I am comfortable with the company of a person or a group and I relate to them, I decide to continue seeing them. Community and people… I am so sociable and I love meeting new people. I have made many friends through the college where I study English. I feel so happy and excited when I am with them…

So, how does being with this group give you strength?

It makes me happy…and happiness is better than strength.

What are the common topics that you discuss when you meet? Are there certain topics that you share with each other?

We try not to mention Syria or the traumatic past. We engage with the present and plan for the immediate future… Just a normal chat… We arrange visits, we gather for coffee or lunch. By the way, I am the oldest in the group [laughs]. They are all much younger than me, but we get along very well and we are so happy when we meet.

What are you most proud of?

I don’t call it pride… But alhamdillah (thanks to God), I achieved what I wanted to do and dreamt of…  For instance, I studied medicine not to be a medical doctor but to work in a lab, which was what I really did do …

What is your biggest dream? And what do you want to achieve?

I feel like I have run out of dreams [laughs]…[sighs]. This period is retirement for me. I have worked all my life and did my best to bring up my children. I am enjoying being with my daughter and grandchildren. I have lovely friends at college and I have also made additional friends through my daughter's connections. Recently, I joined a neighbourhood social group of different nationalities and backgrounds where we meet in the library every Thursday. We discuss many topics. My English has improved immensely because of this group.

Do you keep in touch with your sons and friends elsewhere?

I use WhatsApp a lot… I have many WhatsApp groups: the first one is for my childhood friends from Syria, the second is for my friends from Turkey, the third is for my friends in the UK and the fourth is for my sons [laughs]. I also have a Facebook account, but I am not very active on Facebook…

Do you have any plans to visit your sons?

[sighs]Inshallah (if God Wills), hopefully, this coming summer as I miss them a lot…

What is your message to Syrians who are planning to leave their country and come to Europe?

If they can’t cope, they shouldn’t come here. They must realize that things are not easy. Asylum is not an easy thing and they might end up in a country that they were not planning to enter.

For Syrians they must think many times before taking the decision to come to the West. They must think whether they can cope with the new culture, new society and new life or not. They have to bear in mind that the journey is not easy and that if they want to make it by the sea, they have to think of the dangers and the deadly risks. They might face unexpected situations in a different culture and a different system and they should be able to cope with these difficulties.

They must be ready to face difficulties.