Malek’s journey from Syria and hopes for the future

Malek has settled well in Rothesay, and his family hope to open a bakery in the town soon.
Malek has settled well in Rothesay, and his family hope to open a bakery in the town soon.

One of the young Syrians who came to Bute a year and a half ago has worked hard to become an important link between the refugee community and their new home, and is now looking forward to moving on to bigger and better things.

Malek Helmi (18), was relocated to the island with his family in February 2016, more than three years after they fled their home in Darayya, near Damascus.

Malek’s father worked in the clothing industry in their home country, and Malek remembers what life was like before civil war broke out in 2011.

He said: “I used to go out late, at midnight even, and feel completely safe.

“We wouldn’t worry about what would happen to us.

“It was very close-knit. I had lots of good friends there – and now they are all over the world.”

Darayya has seen heavy fighting since unrest started, and in August last year rebel fighters surrendered the city to the regime after years of conflict.

Malek told the Buteman: “When the fighting started my dad’s factory burned down, so he opened up a new shop in the city and traded materials.

“It was getting more and more dangerous for young people and my older brother was 17 – in wartime the age for national army service was 18.

“My family had to leave for Jordan but my dad stayed behind to work in Damascus. He would come to visit us in Jordan.

“Then after about four months they said they would close the border. He had to decide between staying at the shop in Damascus or coming to Jordan with us.

“He came with us, but there was no work in Jordan so we had to move again, to Egypt.

“Then the border was closed there too after the unrest, so after a few more months we left for Lebanon.”

Malek’s dad would continue travelling across the region trading clothing materials, but this attracted the attention of the Syrian intelligence community.

He continued: “They saw that he was travelling a lot and dealing with lots of money, so the government interviewed him and accused him of supporting terrorism.

“They knew he had money, and they tortured him a lot.

“We got in touch with an intermediate who was able to arrange for him to escape to Lebanon.

“Lots of others were in that situation - if they didn’t have money then people wouldn’t be able to get them out.

“After that my dad was in a very bad medical condition, he had to stop working.

“Because Lebanon isn’t far from Syria and the agencies were still looking for him, we appealed to the UN to help us.

“They were able to get us into a resettlement programme, and we eventually came to Bute after two and a half years in Lebanon.

“I had always wanted to come to the UK, and though I have been to lots of places I had never been to an island before!”

His family have settled into island life well, and his parents and brother-in-law are eagerly awaiting approval from Argyll and Bute Council of their application to open up a bakery in Rothesay.

Malek proudly claims he is more fluent in English than any of the other Syrians, and he now has a noticable Scottish accent – though not as thick as his younger brother’s.

Malek said: “I already learned English and French in school in Syria, and I knew all the grammar and that sort of thing.

“I’ve always watched a lot of Western movies and I listen to a lot of music, and I would want to understand every word.

“I don’t like to go somewhere and not understand what people are saying!”

He now hopes to study immunology at the University of Aberdeen, and is hard at work at Rothesay Academy to gain the qualifications he needs in chemistry, biology and maths, as well as photography.

He was taken with Aberdeen after a prolonged stay at the university as part of a summer school, and he is now determined to join the friends he made there next year.