Bute audience hears realities of life as a Syrian asylum seeker

Dima AlMekdad (second right) with Patricia McArthur and Dima's Syrian storytelling colleagues Bassam Dawood and Julia Rampen at Rothesay Library on October 28, 2015.
Dima AlMekdad (second right) with Patricia McArthur and Dima's Syrian storytelling colleagues Bassam Dawood and Julia Rampen at Rothesay Library on October 28, 2015.

A Syrian asylum seeker who visited Rothesay last week for the Scottish International Storytelling festival says she would be happy to return to help the island’s newest residents settle in.

Fifteen families will move to Bute over the next few weeks under the UK government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

Dima AlMekdad, who visited Rothesay Library to recreate the Syrian storytelling tradition with her colleagues Bassam Dawood and Julia Rampen, is currently living in London with her husband and studying for a PhD after having her asylum application accepted.

“I’m happy to volunteer to do orientation sessions for the people who are coming here,” she said.

“They have probably lived outside in tents for years. It’s going to take them so long to adjust to civilisation and to living in such a different country.

“Every little thing you would think they’d know, they don’t.

“The people coming here have gone through a lot. The best thing you can do is be as patient, kind and welcoming as you can.”

Dima was a student in the UK when the Syrian revolution erupted in 2011 - and spoke of her experience since then, and her hopes for the future, in a question-and-answer session which followed the storytelling event.

“My husband and I planned to go back to Syria after one year and open a small lab and pharmacy in Damascus,” she said.

“But we couldn’t go back. We tried to go back towards the end of 2012, but we only got to Beirut - we said our goodbyes there to families, and were forced to return to Britain and claim asylum. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Dima also said that, far from leaving the most difficult part of her life behind her, in some respects her problems had only just begun.

“The asylum journey was very difficult,” she said.

“We were taken to Wakefield, the most northerly place I’d ever been to at the time, and we had to stand in an ‘initial accommodation centre’ right next to a prison.

“Everyone in the UK Border Agency was treating us as if it was our fault we were there. We were constantly accused, constantly questioned about who we are and where we’d come from.

“Others there were claiming to be Syrian just to get asylum, so we understood why it was like that, but it wasn’t easy for us. My husband had to spend four hours in an interrogation room. Even the catering lady gave you your food with a big frown.

“The only people who would actually smile at asylum seekers were from the Refugee Council - it’s volunteer-run, and it does an amazing job. They bring in translators to help with the paperwork - and Syrian people are not used to paperwork!

“We were eventually granted asylum, while others were deported.”

Dima and her husband, who is also studying for a PhD, can stay in the UK for five years before either returning to Syria or applying for indefinite leave to remain - and if opting for the latter, after a further 12 months they can apply for UK citizenship.

The couple have now settled in London - but not every aspect of life in the city is easy to get used to.

“I’d like to move to Scotland, “ Dima continued. “I know it’s colder, but the people here actually smile and talk to strangers, which is something I miss from Syria.

“But I think you guys sometimes take too many things for granted. Some of my work colleagues didn’t vote in the election this year, for example - I had to say to them ‘do you realise that in my country people are dying just so they can vote?’”

Dima admitted that she’s only able to stand up and talk about her harrowing experiences thanks to “a lot of therapy and anti-depressants” - but that doesn’t mean she’s given up hope.

“I’ve lost family members because of the war,” she added. “But I still hope that one day I will be able to move back and open my little pharmacy.

“If I stopped believing there was hope for the future of Syria, I would die tomorrow.”