From Syria to a London university: a child refugee’s story

Photo credit to Dominic Mifsud

Just two years ago, Birkbeck University student Ishmael Hamoud was one of thousands of migrants living in squalid conditions in a makeshift camp in Calais. During his 13 months there, he regularly attempted life-threatening trips by lorry to illegally enter the UK—often entirely on his own.

“It became routine,” he says with a calm demeanour and in fluent English. “At first I was terrified, but as I tried more than 100 times it just became my everyday. The last time I attempted to get in I was caught on a ship in Dover, and that’s when I gave up.”

As an unaccompanied minor from Aleppo, Syria, Ishmael fled his country at the age of 15 when the war made it unbearably dangerous for his family. His father, a prominent Syrian, stood with the opposition trying to overthrow the Government at the beginning of the revolution.

“In Aleppo, I left my home so infrequently because I had nothing to do outside, because there was no real outside. It was just a battleground, you heard the war all around you every minute of the day.

“So the people are just hiding in their houses, they have nothing else to do. And when it gets really bad, they leave to go somewhere a bit better,” Ishmael says.

Today the nineteen-year-old’s life looks very different. Only two weeks after being caught in Dover and sent back to Calais, Ishmael was legally brought to the UK as part of the Dubs Amendment. This is a scheme which has allowed a couple of hundred unaccompanied children to seek asylum in the UK.

The law is named after British Labour politician Lord Alfred Dubs, who was a child refugee himself during World War II. Lord Dubs is Jewish and he and his family were forced to flee from Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi persecution.

Ishmael says he was one of around 20 young people brought to the United Kingdom from Calais on the first round of the policy, just as the camp was being demolished.

After arriving in London and being taken in by a foster family, Ishmael set out to learn English immediately. He was determined to resume his studies even though he had not received any formal education since he was 11 because of the conflict, something he says that is commonplace in Syria.

He had his heart set on starting university right away because of his age, but he was told the only way he could do that was by completing two years of A-levels, which is a high-school qualification in the UK. A private school in North West London offered him a scholarship, but after one month he got fed up knowing that he was capable of doing more, so he left.

Ishmael heard about a fund at Birkbeck called the Compass Project, which provides up to 20 asylum seekers scholarships to study at the University. The programme helps people who have often arrived in the UK without the traditional documentation needed to progress into higher-education.

After completing a foundation year with one of the top marks in the University, Ishmael advanced directly into second year of a politics degree. Pondering this, Ishmael says: “I’ve worked extremely hard, but I feel very lucky in the sense that I’ve become kind of an exception, both in being able to come to the UK and getting to progress so quickly through university.”

He wants to use the education he’s accessed to make a difference in both the UK and Syria. “I eventually want to become a politician, like my father. My dream job would be working for the British Foreign Office in Middle East Policy,” he says.

It’s this same determination that got then 15-year-old Ishmael from Syria to Calais in the first place, a journey which took him 10 gruelling days. He started by taking a boat from Turkey to Greece, a trip which many people die trying to complete. He was one of the lucky ones and made his way gradually to France.

“I had so many difficult experiences along the way: I lost my possessions, I got injured, I was hungry.”

“But the worst part was Calais. It was a massive shock: the conditions, the environment, the treatment, the people, the lifestyle; it was impossible,” Ishmael recounts.

The rest of Ishmael’s family is still in Syria and don’t have any plans to leave. So, he hasn’t seen them since. Completely on his own, Ishmael was forced to live with strangers in the camp. “I knew I was alone and that I was facing my own destiny. Before I left, my father said to me that the second I crossed the Syrian border I would be completely on my own and he couldn’t help me.

“It was a huge challenge even having the courage to continue. Leaving my family to go off on my own was the most difficult moment I’ve had in my life. I hadn’t even gone to another Syrian city by myself before.

“For a while I thought ‘what am I doing?’ But something deep inside of me told me to keep going and that my freedom was worth fighting for.”

“But the main thing about my journey that was memorable was how alone I felt. That was the worst, having no one supporting you. Just knowing that you’re 100 percent on your own,” he says.

Having gotten so used to being on his own, Ishmael now prefers it. He says he’s not naturally the most social person—something you wouldn’t pick up on when speaking to him. He still keeps in touch with his foster family, but now lives in a flat on his own close to his university, which he is really enjoying. 

He’s also able to stay in regular contact with his family in Aleppo through social media. Although he misses them a great deal, he sees Britain as his home now. “The second I came here, I experienced a great feeling of being home. I know I’m finally in the right place.”