Whenever I think of my hometown in England, I remember the seasons, especially autumn, when trees turn golden before dropping their leaves. I remember summer days walking the Exmoor hills, watching a game of cricket on the Recreation Ground, chatting with friends in the Square. It’s a small town, so I knew almost everyone.
It was a safe place for our children to grow up.
I miss my home, which my wife and I spent four years renovating. We enjoyed having people around for dinner, playing Uno or just watching films. Our favourite part of the house was the roof garden where we relaxed on warm evenings with a gin and tonic after a long week working in a local hospital.
But, things in my country were changing. It began with protests and fighting in our cities. Soon there was a shortage of fuel for cars and to heat our homes, and that winter, many people died from cold. Food became scarce, shops were empty, and finally, the government commandeered farmers’ crops for the militia. Civilians had to forage what they could; it was hard. I was at the hospital most of the time because more and more sick and injured people were coming in every day and night.
One evening, two men with guns broke into my house and stole our possessions, then shot my wife in the stomach. With the help of friends and neighbours, she survived. Soon afterwards, the bombing started. I knew we had to leave, but she was too weak so we decided I should go, to find a safe place for us. I kissed her goodbye and felt tears on her eyelashes. “I don’t know where I am going, but I will send word when I get there,” I promised.
I set off on my bicycle carrying a rucksack with a few clothes, a mobile phone and about £250 in cash. I headed south, travelling only at night. Every day, when dawn broke, I hid in abandoned buildings or in a ditch. I rode through housing estates, shattered by coalition missiles. I saw children, some in tattered rags, others completely naked, running from gunfire and explosions. A part of me died because I couldn’t stay longer to help them. I sent a message to my wife whenever I could.
After five days, I reached the coast and stumbled upon some other refugees hiding in a forest. The next night, we gave a man all the money we had for a fishing boat. We had to lift it over a fence so no one would suspect it had been stolen, giving us more time to get away. One of our group also found some provisions in a car, the driver had been shot. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
We set sail for France.
I was weak and lonely, but the other men gave me energy. Slowly I came to realise I wasn’t alone and that many of my brothers had suffered more than me. Some of them had seen their entire family killed. We stuck together, not as refugees, but as human beings.
When we arrived at Calais, all we saw was a sea of mud and white plastic sheeting. Fifteen of us shared the same tent; the roof leaked, and we slept fully clothed, shivering from the cold and damp. The French authorities gave us no food, clothing or anything else. Almost every day, fascist mercenaries armed with batons and iron bars would raid the camp and beat us, screaming and yelling that we were vermin who deserved to die.
From the fifteen men, seven of us decided to leave as soon as possible. Even though the cordon around the camp was heavily guarded, it was a risk we had to take. By some miracle, our boat was where we had left it. We sailed around the Atlantic coast, through the Bay of Biscay and onwards into the Mediterranean. A few kind people tried to help us whenever we went ashore to scavenge fresh water and provisions, but no European country would welcome us. We landed six months later at Oran in Algeria. Only five of us survived the journey.
From Oran, we were flown to a detention centre on the island of Djerba off the Tunisian coast while our asylum applications were processed. New refugees arrived all the time. Although we were given food, we had to remain in our cells for 20 hours a day. Many people were deported back to England, but my application for asylum in Syria was approved because I was medically trained. Two years after leaving my hometown, I arrived in Aleppo.
I am safe, but I still don’t know what happened to my brothers from the boat. Thanks to the International Red Cross, my wife is coming here in two weeks; it will be nearly four years since I last saw her, since I kissed her goodbye and felt her tears.
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© Rivenrod 2021
Pictures: BBC and Moss Holder