Arrested and tortured back home, Khalil, one of the first Syrian refugees to be resettled in Britain, is finding it harder to adapt to a new life in chilly northern England than his children.
In the vanguard of Britain’s resettlement scheme for Syrian refugees, Khalil is grateful to have avoided a perilous Mediterranean sea crossing and overland trek through unwelcoming nations in southeastern Europe. But challenges lie ahead.
“I find learning a new language at my age a little bit difficult,” said the 40-year-old former shop owner through an Arabic translator. “My kids are really amazing, they are learning English very quickly, I am learning from them.”
Because of the horrific abuse he had suffered, Khalil’s family was put on a United Nations list from which the British government takes Syrians deemed most in need. About 200 have arrived so far, half of them to Bradford, a former industrial city with a long history of immigration.
“In nine or twelve months (refugee children) are speaking English fluently with little Yorkshire accents, which is lovely to see,” said Gudrun Carlisle of Horton Housing Association, which helps settle the Syrian families in the city.
Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Sept. 7 the resettlement scheme would be expanded, responding to public clamour for his government to help those fleeing civil war in Syria, with 20,000 refugees set to come over five years.
Khalil owned a mobile phone shop in Zabadani near Syria’s border with Lebanon when, after the war began, he was arrested by government security forces four separate times, and tortured. He suffers from severe pain in his right hip as a result.
The family fled to Lebanon where they spent two years living in a tiny ramshackle garage. His family was hassled by officials to pay for needless documents, and suffered discrimination as Sunni Muslims in a predominantly Shi’ite area.
“When I travelled to Lebanon I had no work,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “There was no way to heat that place with my kids, the walls were made of mud.”
Khalil, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals against his family in Syria, was eventually identified by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR as particularly vulnerable.
He was flown to Bradford with his pregnant wife and children in June, reluctantly leaving his brother and elderly parents behind.
Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011, has killed about 250,000 people, uprooting some 7.6 million within Syria and creating 4 million refugees, most of them living in camps in nearby Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
At least 182,000 Syrians have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015, almost 40 percent of the total of refugees and migrants making the sea crossing.
Of the small number of Syrians resettled in Britain so far, half are in Bradford. The city has a proud history of welcoming refugees, with Jews, eastern Europeans and Pakistanis arriving in the 20th century, said David Green, leader of the council.
Officials meet refugees at the airport and slowly induct them into British life, providing translators as well as helpers to sort out schools, healthcare and housing.
Khalil, wearing a thick black jacket, sits in an English lesson provided for the refugees.
“Can you pass the scissors please?” he and his classmates say in turn, some already speaking with a hint of their teacher’s Yorkshire accent.
Though children learn quickly, adult refugees are often slow to pick up the language, limiting their employment options even though many are highly qualified, said Gudrun Carlisle. “We have a doctor here, we have a woman who started her own business.”
Khalil currently lives off government benefits, but wants to work when he has a better grasp of the language. “I used to have a shop,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be able to do that here, but I plan to work in restaurants or find another kind of job that suits me.”
He likes taking his children to see the parks and old buildings in Bradford, but is apprehensive about his first British winter.
But his main worries are about his family back home. His parents are still in Lebanon, his mother very ill, while his cousin’s family are stuck in the town of Madaya near Zabadani, trapped in fighting between government forces and rebels.
“We try to contact them every day, but the communications are cut all the time. Whenever we do, we hear the bombing and the shooting.
“My kids all the time ask me: What about our grandma and grandpa? Are we going to see them again?'” Khalil does not know, but is looking for positives where he can find them.
“I am settled now, I feel safe, people are welcoming,” he said. “I live in dignity here.”