Stories

Sulaiman Sulaiman (Owner of Jasmin Falafel Restaurant)

I was born in 1993 in Manbij, which is the largest city in the Aleppo region inhabited by 1 million people. It is about 35 km from the Turkish boarders and 80 km from Aleppo… I finished my primary and secondary education in Manbij. At university I studied electrical engineering for two years but didn’t continue as I wanted to help my dad support the family. I worked in a shop that sold building and construction equipment to houses and companies. I am married with one child aged one year and two months. I came to the UK in 2014 and I applied for asylum when I first entered the UK. After five years I have thankfully got my permanent leave to remain.

Can you tell me more about your life and education in your hometown?

There were primary schools for boys and for girls. My primary school was called Abu Firas al Hamadani. Al Hamadani is a well-known, established Arab poet who was born in the city and the school was named after him. I studied for 6 years in this school. My secondary education was in the Manbij Secondary School for boys. [sighs] Manbij is actually known as the city of poets as it is the birthplace of important poets like Omar Abu Reesha, al Buhturi and Abu Firas al Hamadani.

Can you tell me more about your school days and your favourite subjects?

During my school days I was very organized. I used to arrange my clothes and things the night before I went to sleep. I used to wake up on my own and was so excited about going to school unlike my younger brother who was lazy. I was so happy to go and meet with my friends and teachers. My favourite topics were Maths and Arabic. Arabic language lessons were so special to me. One day my Arabic teacher, Mr. Yahya, gave us an Arabic dictation test around 4-5 lines. Two days later, he wanted us to do the same test but on the blackboard in front of the other pupils. When he called on me and gave me the dictation test, I managed to write all the words correctly with not a single mistake. The teacher was very annoyed but I couldn’t understand why! He told me that I had misspelt many words on paper and he wished I would write them the way I wrote them on the blackboard!’

Can you describe a special memory from your schooldays or the thing you miss most?

I miss my close friends … [sighs]. Four or five of them were so close to me. We were always checking on each other and helping and supporting one another in good and bad times. We used to play football on the weekends – Fridays and Saturdays in a very big field behind the school. One day one of my friends was ill and we all went to visit him. We all decided to stop playing football until he recovered. The field was full of pomegranate trees, walnut trees, Damask roses and other types of flowers. During school days, we used to visit the field with our teacher when we had a horticulture lesson, something I was fond of … I still remember how excited I was during that lesson. The teacher used to teach us how to prepare the land for plantation which required wearing gloves, clearing the field, carrying waste bags and using tools for digging. The most pleasant part was planting the seedlings, because it was always accompanied by watering the plants with hoses, which I loved doing [laughing]. These were joyous moments and happy days, indeed [sighs].

What else do you miss and remember?

During the fasting month of Ramadan we, the people of the neighbourhood which comprised 25 houses, used to exchange food, cookies and sweets. When the call for the Sunset prayer started and we began breaking our fast, we were amazed at the variety of food and the number of dishes on our dinner table. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Circassians used to be friends. The same with Muslims and Christians. During Christmas we used to have a day off to celebrate with our Christian friends who did the same during our Eid celebrations.

Did you learn anything about Europe in school?

During our 7th, 8th and 9th grades we studied English and French: first language Arabic, second English and 3rd French. I still remember the hardcover of my English grammar book with the photo of the London Eye and Big Ben. We learned about England, Wales and Scotland but we didn’t know much about the names of cities. We learned about Germany, Italy, Spain etc and dreamed of visiting them one day as tourists. It never occurred to us that a day would come when we would be refugees in these countries...

Tell me more about the political situation and how you decided to leave the country?

To be honest, I was forced to make the decision to leave the country … In the early days of the revolution, there were pro-Asad marches and we were so optimistic as we were expecting Asad to deliver a speech promising Syrians a better life … If al Asad had invested in his people and granted his people just 5% of all that money he spent on killing them, we would have been blessed [sighs].

At the start of the revolution that was late 2011 and early 2012, we began taking part in peaceful marches with slogans like: ‘We want freedom’ and we demanded to be treated fairly and humanely. Marches went on like this for four to five months, but soon after that the regime started a violent campaign using batons, tear gas and weapons. The regime was the one who initiated the violence. The demonstrators were groups of students, teachers, medical doctors, university professors and others who were fed up with corruption, favouritism, injustice and a 40-year reign of fear and oppression. We used to carry flags and write on walls and were doing all we could to keep it peaceful, but the government imposed a state of emergency and used mercenaries to suppress us. Those mercenaries, who usually sold cigarettes and newspapers on the pavements, were former prisoners accused of very serious crimes who had been set free. They were paid to use force against the demonstrators. We nevertheless continued our peaceful efforts and were dreaming of change, but unfortunately all was in vain [sighs].

Can you tell me more about how the situation developed?

In July 2012, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of soldiers and low-ranking officers who had belonged to the regime’s army, began to defect from the regime forces. This was when things started to take an unpleasant and ugly turn and the regime began to repress the uprising more and more. As the FSA members were already armed, the revolution turned from being peaceful into an armed struggle and that was exactly what the regime wanted.

On the 19th July 2012 my city, Manbij, was liberated from the regime's hold and fell under the FSA's control. We were so pleased that the FSA was in charge and people demanded reforms, change and basic rights. The FSA continued to govern Manbij for about two years during which time the city witnessed heavy aerial bombings by the Asad regime using barrel bombs made from oil drums, fuel tanks or gas cylinders filled with explosives and metal fragments. For instance, you might be shopping in the city centre and suddenly an oil drum or a gas cylinder would explode somewhere close to you. The government used to kill innocent people and spread lies on the state TV channel, broadcasting for instance that the bombings targeted a group of terrorists and killed 20 of them. I personally witnessed passers-by, who got killed from shrapnel which hit their heads, and elderly men who had heart attacks as a result of the horrible sound of explosions.

Can you talk me through how you, the young men and women reacted to the violence?

At this stage, I tried to help as a volunteer with the ambulance team … The city was suffering from a severe shortage of ambulance staff. I personally had no idea how to offer first-aid or any of that. So, I volunteered with a group of young men and women and had intensive one-month training on nursing and first aid with a female doctor. We learned several essential things about how to draw blood, inject, evacuate people and help the injured and the wounded etc. In the meantime, we decided to form a small organization for young men which we called Future Youth Organisation… It was based in an office which had formerly belonged to the Asad regime. We started with 100 members from different educational and professional backgrounds and gradually we expanded. We were basically offering different services, raising awareness about best ways to avoid shrapnel and stay safe, helping people who had to flee their homes and finding temporary refuges for them. For instance, we used to locate deserted schools, clean the classrooms, ensure that water supplies were available, provide bedding and essentials and simply make temporary places ready for people after evacuation.

How did you manage to help the injured? Those with disease? What about medical support?

We approached pharmacies and requested them to donate medicine, bandages, necessary drugs for those who needed them the most. Later, we initiated another campaign called ‘Syria is bleeding’. The aim was purely humanitarian and had nothing to do with politics or the regime. We young men and women simply wanted to help people survive. For instance, we collected blood in order to help children with the blood disorder Thalassemia and who needed blood transfusions every now and then. We used the mosques to call people to come forward and donate their blood after heavy bombings on the city. During peaceful intervals, especially on Friday mornings, we used to visit remote areas and, through the Imams, ask villagers for blood donations during the Friday’s prayer. On each visit we used to collect over 150 blood bags and would hand them to the blood bank. Things went smoothly for some time and we were so happy that we were able to help as many people as we could through these Friday visits to rural areas.

How did the regime respond and what else did you do?

The regime's agents filled the walls with slogans like ‘Asad or we burn the country’, ‘With soul and blood we redeem you, Bashar’… In Syria, we grew up with photos of the Asad sons everywhere in schools, offices, streets, hospitals etc. As part of our volunteering role, we initiated a campaign called ‘My city, my house’ and we washed and painted the walls of Manbij's city centre… We replaced the president's photos with lines from poetry or famous sayings encouraging young people to study and gain knowledge and education. We were trying to focus on our love for Syria, moving away from sect, religion and politics.

When and how did you decide to leave the country?

In 2014 the situation got worse with the rise of ISIS who intimidated people and forced them to join their forces. We found ourselves between the hammer of ISIS and the anvil of the Syrian regime which was also intent on conscripting us. In either case, we would be conscripted to cause more damage and more massacres against our own people [sighs].

My friends and I decided to migrate when we realized that staying would endanger our lives and our families. We could never join the Syrian army, ISIS or let ourselves be manipulated by any other group, as each of these options was equally fatal. There was no other way but to leave. The closest routes were either Lebanon or Turkey. I decided to travel to Turkey and live there and then bring my family to join me. I stayed in Turkey for around 15 days, but it was so difficult to settle in Turkey as everything was different, language, customs and life in general. A friend of mine suggested that I had better travel to Europe as the political situation was getting worse with the recent developments and complications at the political arena in Syria. The plan was to travel to Lebanon, North Africa and then Europe. I preferred Britain because I had basic English and I knew I would manage with English and get better at it. Since an early stage of my life I had loved Britain and the image of the London Eye and Big Ben was always present in my mind [laughs].

From Turkey I travelled to Lebanon where I stayed for 6 months working in a supermarket from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm to be able to earn a living. I saved around 00 and travelled to Algeria without a visa. Then, we were smuggled to Tunisia through the desert, which took us three days, and then to Libya. In Libya, we met a smuggler who asked for 00 to take us to Italy by sea. The smuggler told us that the boat could take 200 persons, which I thought was a big number. We paid the money and were asked to wait for four days. On the fifth day, that was Saturday the 24th August 2014, we were taken to a beach to start the journey with over 500 persons in a miserable old boat … [sighs]. That was a very difficult day in my life.

We were jammed into this boat with 500 passengers of different backgrounds and nationalities: Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Sudanese … There were families, young people and children, mums alone with their children and some elderly persons. The boat journey started smoothly and at some stage the smugglers handed us over to another boat and left, as it was illegal for them to sail any further. The new boat was even more miserable than the first one. I and hundreds of others, families and children, were placed on the deck, and around 80 persons with really big bodies from Bangladesh, Sudan and other parts of Africa, were placed in the engine room below deck. Under the pressure of the large number of passengers, the boat leaned either to the right side or to the left side leaving the people struggling to keep it balanced. In the meantime, the people were hearing sounds of wood logs falling off the boat or breaking under the heavy weight … Everybody realized that this was an abnormal situation and that the boat would break up at some stage.

I saw women crying and praying to God for mercy! I was so scared but was trying hard to comfort the families while feeling the end approaching. Everybody was thirsty and there was just one gallon of water to use, so we had to prioritize the children, women and old persons. The boat then stopped completely, and we were left in the middle of water for 6 hours with no idea of where we were and what would happen next. Luckily some of my young companions had some mobile signals and they used them to ask for help. Suddenly, a ship and a helicopter appeared from afar and people used their life jackets to wave to them for help. Everybody was happy thinking that it was an end to this fearful journey. The crew on board the ship told us that they were going to send us lifeboats and rescue one family at a time… They did rescue two families.

Suddenly the engine room below deck was opened allowing the 80 or so people to come out onto the upper deck, causing chaos and panic and the boat to turn upside down. We were in the water! I could feel people treading on my head and shoulders when I threw myself deep in the water [sighs]. Luckily, the floating life vest I was wearing helped me to float above the surface. I managed to swim towards a wooden beam hanging from the overturned boat and found myself clinging to it firmly. A young man was shouting for help and held my arm in desperation begging me not to let him go. In front of me a woman was struggling to swim and to stay afloat while her daughter was drowning. Unable to help her daughter, the woman was desperately crying and shouting for help! At that moment, I felt so helpless, so paralyzed and ashamed that I wasn’t able to move to help the drowning girl. I was aware that if I moved any further, I would not only endanger my life but also that of the young man gripping my arm. The girl drowned and no one could help her. The rescue team were doing all they could to rescue the elderly, the women and the children. After remaining in that position for a while – it felt like years – we were rescued. We were taken to the shores of Italy where we heard that 160 persons had lost their lives in that tragedy.

Later, I travelled to around 6 or 7 countries until I was able to be illegally smuggled to the UK in a refrigerated truck full of lemons. Along with few other Iranians and Syrians, I was hiding in the truck when we suddenly found a British phone signal on our mobiles [laughs]. Only then did we realize that we had finally made it through to the UK border. I was taken to the border agency’s office for investigation and then I was transferred to a very good hotel in London and stayed for about a month. During that first month I felt alienated with very little English and horrible memories. In the meantime, my family were under severe bombings and faced with dire conditions and I advised them to travel to Turkey.

How did you end up in Cardiff and how did you cope with a new life?

I didn’t choose to come to Cardiff, but I was given clear directions from the Home Office to come here and to start with the Job Centre and to take it from there. Once I arrived, I decided to improve my English and find a job. I found a job at a restaurant where I used to start early in the morning and close at around 2:00 am. Even though it was difficult to work long hours and to study, I had to learn English. I joined a free English course at Cardiff & Vale College and I was always late for my lessons as I could hardly find time to sleep from 3:00 am to 8:00 am. Sometimes, I used to fall asleep in the middle of the lesson [laughs]. A colleague once took a video of me falling asleep in class and surprised me with the video afterwards. But day by day my English improved as a result of my interaction with restaurant customers.

What about your family back home?

I managed to bring my mother and brother and then the other siblings to the UK and later I brought my fiancée and got married in Cardiff… Now, I have a one-year old baby. I feel that it is my responsibility to educate my siblings and provide a better future for them; a future that, at an earlier stage I couldn’t pursue as a result of war and my need to support to my family. Most of my friends managed to continue their studies and build a career here in the West. I am also determined to study and succeed and become an engineer.

Have you or your family ever felt unwelcomed in Cardiff or elsewhere in the country?

Not at all… We have never encountered any racist or unwelcoming attitudes here. On the contrary, we managed to build very good relations with neighbours, and I have developed many friendships with Welsh and English people in Cardiff. When my family arrived, I took them to London to visit Big Ben and the London Eye and I took many photos next to these monuments [laughs]. Last week, I was so excited to have my English language teacher at Cardiff & Vale College pay me a visit in the restaurant with a group of his students. He was so proud to find me owning a restaurant and he reminded me of the time when I used to sleep during his class [laughs]. I have settled in well and I am so happy and grateful for having survived and succeeded. Even though I miss my friends and relatives I keep in touch with them through Facebook and WhatsApp. I watch the news about Syria on my mobile on a daily basis. I wish to study civil engineering and I actually applied to several colleges. I was recently offered a place at Exeter university and I am seriously considering studying.

Why do you want to be a civil engineer? Isn’t it a hard course of study?

I am planning to go back one day, after the regime changes, and help rebuild my country. I love Syria and I love my home city. I follow what is happening and shed tears on a daily basis. [sighs]. My heart and soul are there. But I can’t do anything to change the situation, other than praying and hoping for the best. Sadly, we are not the decision makers. We tried our best as revolutionaries, volunteers to help our nation but the conflict, the regime and its supporters are bigger than all of us, especially the Russian support.

Any message to Syrian refugees or Syrians planning to leave their country?

I wish that anyone who is considering the sea journey would rethink and plan a safer route. It is better to stay in any country outside of Syria than to endanger their lives at the hands of merciless smugglers. People should also realize that the West is not a paradise and that they must work hard to be able to integrate and be accepted. The first thing is the English language and there are many other things to learn too.