Syrian mother overcomes tragedy to get fresh start in UK
After losing her husband, brother and – ultimately – her father to the conflict in Syria, Asmaa began a law degree in Jordan before getting a chance at a new life in the UK.
Syrian refugees walk near Azraq camp in northern Jordan, March 2016.
© UNHCR/Annie Sakkab
Just 21 years old when she fled from Syria to Jordan in 2012, Asmaa – pregnant with her second child at the time – had already suffered exposure to horrific violence, the disappearance of her brother and the killing of her husband Noor, as the conflict engulfing her country left her own young life in ruins.
Reeling from grief and displacement, she and her family were living as refugees in the Jordanian capital, Amman, when tragedy struck again. A television news report on events in Syria confirmed the death of her brother Mohammad, aged just 16 when he disappeared, but the agony did not end there.
“[My father] turned off the TV, he held my mother and told her: ‘Don’t be sad. We are not the only people who lost someone’,” Asmaa recalled. “Then he had a heart attack. We called 911 and they came, but they told us he had died.”
"I wanted to be an independent woman."
As a young widow with two young children to support, Asmaa sought help from local charities and looked for work to get by. But as well as assistance, she often also received unwanted advice.
“Many times, people would ask me: ‘Why do you go to charities, why do you want to work? You should get married and let your husband take care of you’. But I didn’t want to do this,” she explained. “I wanted to get a job, because I wanted to be an independent woman.”
Deciding that education offered the best route to independence, Asmaa applied to sit her high school exams, which she had never passed, and learned English through courses at the British Council in Amman. There, she heard about an EU scholarship scheme to study for a degree through the UK’s Open University, and was one of six people selected from among 150 applicants, opting to study law.
Now aged 29 and after three years of intense study, she is preparing to sit her final exams in the coming months. But an even bigger life change means that revision has had to take a back seat in recent weeks.
"It will be a better future for them."
Based on their level of vulnerability, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, assessed Asmaa and her family as being eligible for resettlement to a third country. Late last year, Amsaa and her two sons, along with her mother and youngest brother, were accepted for resettlement to the United Kingdom, and will shortly move to the North East of England.
Asmaa said the move will give her and her boys a chance of the new life that she has been working so hard towards since leaving Syria.
“I was shocked, but I was so happy. Especially because it was to the UK, after I studied UK law,” she explained. “I think everything will be different. I will get a job, I will have good friends there. For my sons, it will be a better future for them.”
“Opportunities for work and education are limited in Jordan, but you cannot ask for these things because they welcomed you and they provided as much as they can,” Asmaa continued. “Even for Jordanian families, they face the same problems now.”
Asmaa and her family were among 81,666 refugees submitted globally in 2019 by UNHCR for resettlement to 29 countries, with more than 90 per cent of the referred cases accepted by receiving states.
In total, more than 63,000 refugees were resettled last year according to figures released on Wednesday, surpassing a target set in the Three-Year Strategy for Resettlement and Complementary Pathways (2019-2021) as part of the Global Compact on Refugees.
Despite these encouraging figures, UNHCR projects that a total of 1.4 million refugees residing in 65 host countries around the world are in need of resettlement, meaning the cases submitted in 2019 represent just 6 per cent of the total needs. In addition, current estimates suggest that less than 60,000 resettlement places will be made available in 2020, falling short of the 70,000 arrivals target set in the Three-Year Strategy.
"I know that if I work hard, I will find the opportunities."
Asmaa says she is aware that her family are among the lucky few who get the chance of a fresh start in a new country, but she is determined to repay the opportunity with hard work in her adopted home. Her most pressing concern is how she will transport the stack of legal text books that stands almost as tall as her that she needs to revise for her finals.
“After I finish my degree I want to find a job, be independent and earn money for myself,” she said. “I know that if I work hard, I will find the opportunities there for me and my children. I don’t want the UK government to spend money on me. It’s already enough that they accepted me and my family in their country.”