Published: 02 Aug 2022  |  Category: Resettlement  |  Stage: We have welcomed a family

Experts by Experience: Zahir and Lena on settling into a rural community

Read our interview with Zahir and Lena, as they share with us their experience of resettlement in a friendly rural market town.

Having now lived in the UK for over two years, Zahir and Lena sat down to talk with us about how their family have settled into a rural community, one which now feels like home. They spoke to us about their experience of leaving Syria, the hardship of rebuilding their lives in Jordan, and the apprehension with which they came to the UK. Settling in has taken time and was only made harder by the first Covid-19 lockdown which came into effect shortly after their arrival. However, with the support of a Community Sponsorship group, they took things in their stride and are now looking forward to helping the group welcome a second family.

Read our interview with them below to hear more!

What were the circumstances in which you left Syria? 

Zahir: It was because of the war. We left with our immediate family, including my sister, her husband, Lena’s mother and brother. It was like three families together. We left by car. We were forced to leave. Only God knows how we felt. We can’t describe the feeling. We were sort of going into the unknown. We only knew one person in Jordan – our niece.  

Lena: The war situation was really tough and there was bombing on the civilian houses, so we were forced to leave. We had no choice. We left behind family and friends who had gone to different parts of Syria that were safer.

Zahir: When we left the neighbourhood, there was no one there anymore because of how dangerous it was. It was easier to leave because everyone else had already gone.  

How was life in Jordan? 

Zahir: It was really hard when we first arrived. We were like foreigners. It was hard to integrate at the beginning, but over time it got better, and we got to know more people. The Jordanian people were nice to us. The problems we had were never because of the Jordanian people. We were welcomed there. But it’s a small country and the economy is not that strong. It’s hard to find jobs – even for Jordanians. 

I’m an electrician. I managed to work but I had to be self-employed. It was manageable, but it was not good conditions. There’s wasn’t enough work. I couldn’t get enough hours. I could only find customers by charging extremely low rates – I had to offer cheaper rates than Jordanians. I had to work cash-in-hand. 

On arrival into Jordan, we went straight to a refugee camp where we spent our first night. Then we travelled to our niece’s home in Amman. We stayed there for a week before moving to the home of another relative in Karak. Then we managed to find somewhere to live independently.  

Lena: The traditions and culture between Syria and Jordan are really different so it took a long time to get used to things.  

Zahir: When Lena was in Syria, she was living among family, but when she was in Jordan, she was by herself, which was difficult. But then bit by bit her family joined her and then things were better because she went back to what she was used to. 

How long were you in Jordan for? 

Zahir: Six years. From the second or third year in Jordan, we felt like we were part of the community. The people were so nice to us. Jordan began to feel like home. It felt hard to leave Jordan. It was like leaving home again. We didn’t have a choice, though. We had to leave because we didn’t have a future there. The community was really nice but there wasn’t a future. Particularly when we thought about our children – because they had no future or prospects in Jordan so we couldn’t stay. 

What was the process for coming to the UK via resettlement? 

Zahir: The UNHCR officials in Jordan contacted us over the phone and asked if we’d like to go to the UK and we said yes. It was either yes or no over the phone – we said yes. Then we had the interviews. The phone call was with me.  

Lena: I was really unsure of the decision because I finally had my family with me in Jordan. If we moved to the UK, I would be in the same situation again. But then when I discussed the matter with Zahir, he convinced me.  

Zahir: Obviously it was hard. Our wider family were sad that we would be separated from them again, but they were happy for us. All the Syrians who live in Jordan are waiting for a chance to be resettled, and they would be happy for any family member who had that chance. They wouldn’t really think about it, they would just say yes. They would be sad to be apart, but they would be happy that they get this opportunity.  

The children were really excited. They had lots of questions!

Did you know much about the UK before you moved here?

Zahir: We had a general idea about European countries, from the news and so forth. Once we found out that we were moving to the UK, I started to call friends and people I knew who had been resettled in the UK to ask them what life was like there. I knew a lot of people, so I got a lot of information.  

The language barrier was my big worry. Not knowing the language makes it harder to settle in and to achieve what we want to achieve.  

Lena: Other than leaving family behind, it was mainly the language barrier that I was worried about.

How did you feel when you first arrived in the UK? 

Zahir: Obviously it was a bit odd when we arrived. We felt a bit weird and strange. But because the community who met us were so nice, it gave us a bit of trust that things were going to be ok.

Lena: Meeting the group gave us hope and made us feel optimistic. 

Zahir: It was really tough when we arrived because Covid started straight away and everything shut down. Also, the town that we are in didn’t have any Arabs or anyone with a similar background or culture, which made it more difficult at the start. We even thought about leaving the town and going somewhere else. But the group were really supportive and helpful. They supported us fully and advised us to wait to move until the Covid situation had settled down. This way we could really work out if we liked the area or not. We’re very glad that we waited because now we really like the place we live. It’s so nice, the people are so kind. 

Lena: At the start it was really tough. I wondered why I’d done this to myself – moving away from all my family. But then I remembered why I’d done this when my children started to go to school, and I saw how the level of education is better, and how well the schools were looking after them. And the excellent support of the group made me feel comfortable.

How did you find your first Ramadan and Eid in the UK? 

Lena: The first Ramadan and Eid were really difficult. It was lonely. 

Zahir: The fasting hours were also very long. Breaking the fast was at nearly 10pm, and the early morning meal was around 1am. And there was no mosque where we were, so I used an app on my phone to keep track of the fasting times. 

The second Ramadan was much better. Even though I knew lots of people in the UK already, we couldn’t see them easily or celebrate with them because they didn’t live nearby. By the second year, I’d met lots of people in the towns nearby where we live – half an hour or so by car. We started to invite each other to break the fast together. Whether you’re in Syria, Jordan, Egypt or any Arab country, there is something in the air – an atmosphere – throughout the whole of Ramadan. You can’t really recreate that, and we did miss that here.   

How did the group support you? 

Zahir: The group helped us a lot. Because of them, we were able to solve lots of the difficulties that we encountered much quicker than we would have been able to otherwise. If we didn’t have the group, we wouldn’t have managed to do most of the things that we managed to do. Their support made our journey better and shorter.  

Lena: Because we had such a positive experience, that’s why we’re getting involved in the group’s second application to welcome another refugee family. 

How are you helping with the second application? 

Zahir: We are happy to do whatever we can to help. We want to help especially at the start because from our experience the start was the most difficult. That was when we felt most lonely, so we will try to make that easier for the second family.  

I remember the hardest thing for me was the driving. When we first arrived, I drove with an international licence for a year. I struggled with the theory test because it’s all in English. I finally managed to pass the theory test, and last Friday I passed the practical test as well! We are happy to help however we can.  

Why do you think Community Sponsorship is important? 

Zahir: If we came to the UK and there was no group, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. We would have struggled with everything, so this is how important it is to have the group. We think it’s important to have schemes for refugees to travel safely to other countries. 

Lena: The group were our guides, helping us learn how to do things independently.

What do you like most about the town you’re in? 

Zahir: We’ve been here for two years now and we feel very integrated into the community. We’re not thinking about leaving anymore!

Lena: The things I like most about the town is that it’s a really quiet area and the people who live here are really caring people. Going forward, I want to learn the language better so I can do more things independently in my community.  

Zahir: I would like to be able to work as an electrician again. Our eldest child wants to study engineering. The younger ones want to go to university too, but they haven’t decided what they want to study. Here our children have options.

What advice would you give to the second family that is welcomed by the Community Sponsorship group?  

Zahir: The advice I would give is to learn the language. Even though it’s a small town, it’s very safe. The people are really nice. When I hear about people in the bigger towns, I can see that there are advantages because they are with lots of people from similar backgrounds, but there are also loads of issues and problems in the big towns too. We feel the benefits in living in a smaller, more quiet community.   

Lena: And don’t make a quick decision to leave here – take some time to settle in and then make up your mind! 

Thank you very much to Zahir and Lena!