‘It was the best moment of my life’ – Syrian refugee on walking into Upper Holloway home for first time

Yvette with Mohamed and Leila. Picture: Sam Gelder

Yvette with Mohamed and Leila. Picture: Sam Gelder - Credit: Archant

Walking into her family’s new home in Upper Holloway in winter 2015 was the best moment of Leila’s life.

Mohamed and Leila in their home. Picture: Sam Gelder

Mohamed and Leila in their home. Picture: Sam Gelder - Credit: Archant

She, her husband Mohamed and their two young sons Hussein and Hussam had been on a horrendous three year journey after leaving behind everything they knew in Syria for the refugee camps – first at the border and then in Turkey.

They were one of 15 families in the second group of refugees to arrive in the UK in December 2015. Islington Council took 10 families and, with the UN estimating one million is now looking for landlords to house another eight.

Leila, a teacher, and Mohamed, a council worker, had tried to stay in their home country but it became impossible.

Mohamed, who had stayed behind for work when his family left their home, was injured in a bomb blast.

He lost consciousness for a week, and Leila had no idea whether he was alive or not. He still feels the effects today and has ongoing health issues.

While he recovered they stayed briefly in Leila’s parents’ home but the first day they arrived her mother’s uncle died.

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“We stayed for 15 days and every single day one or two person died,” she said.

The couple would sit up at night watching their children and think: “When is it our time?”

She continued: “We hear when they shoot the bomb and we wait for it to come. If we hear the second sound we feel relieved but if we don’t hear it that means: ‘This is for you.’”

They decided to head for the border, and camped in the mountains with no clean water.

Leila continued: “When we woke up in the morning you’d see wolves around the tent and could hear it all the night. I was afraid to sleep and would keep the fire on all night.”

They stayed there for four months wishing the Turkish government would open the border, but it didn’t – and so they took their chances when the army left.

In Turkey the conditions were better. They had clean water and Leila worked as a teacher. But they still had no idea what the future held.

“When you live there you don’t have any hope or any wish,” Leila said. “Just waiting, waiting, waiting – for what? To come back? We all hope the war finished and we could come back.”

Finally, a year after contacting the UN, they heard back. Several interviews followed, and after initially being scheduled to go to America, the family was on a plane to London.

Leila continued: “It was stressful. For two days we didn’t sleep. We didn’t know where we would go.

“They sat with us for one hour to talk about Britain and its culture.

“We arrived and I’m fully tired. Refugee Action waited for us in the airport with a small bag of water, breakfast. They were really friendly and smily.”

Waiting for them was a flat in Blenheim Court, Upper Holloway, courtesy of Yvette Mahon and her family, who decided to answer the council’s call for landlords.

Leila added: “We arrived, and this is the best moment for me, for my life. It changed my life for 100 per cent.

“Yvette opened the door for us. We came in but I still felt afraid to touch anything. They said: ‘This is your home,’ but in this moment you don’t believe this it. After three years sitting in the camp, and the hard life.

“She said: ‘This is your children’s room’, and it was full of toys. The living room was upstairs and I started crying with my husband and made her cry with us.

“We were sitting here around six hours. The children were playing downstairs. They missed this. We were focusing on food and clothes, so they forgot.”

Leila had studied English at university but didn’t speak it. She and Yvette used to sit side by side and chat via Google translate.

Two years on, the whole family is fluent. Hussein, seven, and Hussam, six, are at school in the borough and Hussam is even developing a Cockney accent.

Six months ago they welcomed daughter Maria to the world, and there are now plans to open up a market stall to capitalise on Leila’s fantastic cooking skills.

Landlord: It’s been so rewarding

“It’s been great for us,” landlord Yvette Mahon said of her choice to house Syrian refugees.

“It was a totally selfish thing we did. As a family our kids are engaged in what’s happening and there were lots of conversations about whether there was anything we could do.

“We went on the marches and wrote letters to MPs and then this flat became available and it seemed the most obvious thing to do.

“It was slow getting off the ground and we were hoping someone would come and then we got a message saying: ‘A family is coming next week.’”

Yvette put out a call to friends who helped her make the flat more of a home. They donated toys and clothes.

“It’s been really rewarding for us,” she added. “Our families have become close, we’ve become good friends and we love them.”

According to the UN more than one million refugees will need to be settled in 2018. Anyone with a property that may be suitable should contact islingtonlettings@islington.gov.uk. Family flats with one, two or more bedrooms are ideal.