Life as a refugee: My escape to freedom

By Maher Almasri

Watching the tragic scenes of the refugee crisis in Afghanistan has brought back memories of my time as a refugee fleeing Syria.

Maher Almasri is now a student in Sheffield

Since the withdrawal of US forces and the rise of the Taliban we have seen Afghans flocking to Hamid Karzai international airport in an attempt to flee the country. Innocent civilians have fallen to their deaths after desperately clinging to the wheels of planes.

It was ten years ago that my life changed. In 2011 the uprising in Syria began, led by the nation’s youth and influenced by the revolutions of fellow Arab countries.

Syrians were able to break their silence and fear that began almost half a century ago. Hope and courage were restored in the eyes and hearts of many Syrians, wishing to abolish dictatorship in the country and appoint a leader who would modernise what used to be the only democratic country in the Middle East.

I was wanted by the Syrian government and forced to hide in a property for two years

However, we were met with excessive aggression from the government which forced millions of Syrians to flee the country, fearing for their lives. I was amongst the people protesting for a better future and in 2012, I was wanted by the Syrian government.

I was forced to hide in a property for two years on the outskirts of Damascus. Military checkpoints were scattered throughout the country which meant I couldn’t leave the premises.

In July 2014, my cousin notified me that he’d be leaving to go to Europe from Libya and asked me to join him. Although the trip was surrounded by danger and many obstacles, I immediately agreed.

But how could I leave Syria with my name on the wanted list? I had to pay $1000 to an army general my father knew, for him to take my name off the list and accompany me to the airport to leave the country.

I left Damascus to Algeria where I met my cousin. We met a smuggler who let us enter Libya from the Algerian border for a fee.

We were 224 people in a boat that barely fit 60 people

We successfully crossed the Algerian-Libyan border after a five-hour walk. We were transferred from the border to the north side of Libya in preparation to catch a boat to Italy.

We were 224 people on a fishing boat that barely fit 60 people, departing at 5 pm. Around midnight, the waves became higher and our boat was almost level with the water.

Maher endured a nightmare sea journey (Photo by Gerhard Lipold for Pexels)

I was sat on the edge of the boat, witnessing the growing fear and mayhem amongst the passengers. People were vomiting, crying, shouting and praying to get to safety.

A few hours later, we were saved by the Italian navy and transferred to the south of Italy. From there, I made my way to France and then to the UK where I was welcomed and treated fairly. 

I’m 27 now and a student at Sheffield Hallam university, building a career and hoping for a brighter future.

I came to Sheffield to meet up with the woman who is now my wife. We met on Facebook while I was in hiding in Syria and we’ve been married for seven years and have three children.

Seeking refuge in the UK has made me resilient and strong willed, as all of my Syrian qualifications were refuted.

I didn’t see my family for more than seven years and lost many friends to the barbaric campaign launched by the government at the expense of innocent civilians.

The scenes from Afghanistan have revived many emotional moments and yet I hope a solution will rise to the surface soon and end both the Syrian and the Afghan conflicts.

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