As I was standing at the Heathrow Airport arrivals gate waiting to be reunited with my husband and two children after three years of separation, I was a wreck.

I kept looking down because I was expecting my kids – who were nine and 11 when I last saw them – to be just as tall as when I left them. 

When they eventually came around the corner, I initially didn’t recognise them.

It wasn’t until I saw my husband that I thought ‘where are my children?’ and they were actually in front of him but they’d changed so much.

As soon as I realised, I ran up to them all and gave them a big hug. After fleeing Syria and then being separated because I came to the UK alone to try to apply for asylum, it was a much-needed reunion.

Our new life was only just beginning but it was years and many hands in the making.

Eight years ago, I found out through fellow displaced Syrian friends that my small flat in the outskirts of Damascus was destroyed during civil unrest in Syria and I lost everything in it. I was absolutely devastated.

Thankfully, by that point, my family had already made the choice to leave our home and move to Dubai in 2000.

It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Syria though. I grew up in Damascus, studied hard and became an anaesthetist in a state children’s hospital – where I worked for 10 years. I worked across the paediatric surgical ward and neonatal ward, as well as supervised postgraduates in anaesthesia.

But just before the turn of the century, political tensions were rising so my husband and I made the decision to move to Dubai because he got a job there and then I did too shortly after arriving.

As time went on, I had my son and daughter but we soon realised that going back to Syria would be increasingly unlikely as family and friends began fleeing our home country. It felt awful slowly seeing a future in the country I grew up in would no longer be possible.

When the civil war broke out in 2011, that’s when we knew we’d probably never feel safe going back so we started to think about where we could all go.

We couldn’t stay in Dubai because we knew we wouldn’t be able get permanent residency to secure a future for our children.

So in 2014, we made the decision for me to leave my husband and two children – because I spoke English the best – and try to seek asylum in the UK. I felt scared about leaving them and moving to the UK because I knew how much I was going to miss them.

We thought that I had the best shot at being granted asylum and then we could apply for family reunification and they could join me.

I moved from house to house every few months and was grateful for the places to stay but I felt like I needed something more permanent

When I flew into London in April 2015, I felt a mixture of sadness at leaving my family behind but hope that everything would be sorted out quickly and I would be reunited with them fairly quickly.

I didn’t really have a clear plan and I felt really uncertain of everything because I didn’t know anyone. I initially stayed in a hostel but there was one point where I was walking around the street alone and late at night and just felt so lost.

Within a month, I applied for an asylum visa through a legal aide and was told to wait until a decision. Waiting around every day was hard because you’re not allowed to work, so I just tried to learn English and speak to my children as much as possible through WhatsApp.

As for my living situation, I ended up staying in the hostel accommodation that the Home Office provided for the first couple of months and it was fine but it never really felt like home.

One day, I met a Syrian family in the local park and we became friends immediately. It was so nice to meet a family like mine, who knew what I was going through. Eventually, they offered for me to stay with them temporarily instead of the hostel and I happily agreed.

I stayed with my new friends for about two months in total and it was nice to feel like I was in a proper home. They also helped me look for alternative accommodation through Facebook groups.

For the next year or so, I moved from house to house every few months and was grateful for the places to stay but I felt like I needed something more permanent. 

That’s when I came across Refugees at Home online – a charity that connects refugees in need of accommodation with hosts in the UK willing to put them up for free – and reached out to see if they could help.

I spent a couple of months with a family in London, but then I moved to accommodation with a woman, who was really lovely. Even though I felt so guilty about living in her home without paying anything – I kept apologising – she never made me feel unwelcome.

Over time, we formed a friendship and even though she was an academic and very busy with work, she occasionally invited me out socially to meet her friends and fellow Refugees at Home hosts or guests. This is when I was able to form some friendships.

I lived there for two years and I’ll never forget the hospitality of my incredibly generous host. I couldn’t ever thank her enough for everything she – and the countless others – have done for me.

Just being there helped me to learn English because I was having conversations with the host and slowly building up my vocabulary. I was also trying to meet new people or even just overhear people’s conversations on the train to learn English.

On 22 December 2017, I finally found out that I was being granted indefinite leave to remain and I was so happy that I cried. I called my family and told them the good news – we all just sobbed. They couldn’t believe it was almost over but we knew that this was only half the journey.

By 29 December, I applied for family reunification so that my husband and two children could come be with me in the UK. I couldn’t wait to be reunited with them after being separated for so long.

After submitting paperwork – like my new Indefinite Leave to Remain documents and IDs – I was anxious to find out whether my application would be approved.

Being a doctor means the world to me because it’s my passion to be around patients and relieve their pain

It took just 40 days for the whole process to be finalised and I was overjoyed at the idea of finally being reunited. But by this point, we’d spent all of the money we’d saved from living in Dubai so I had no idea how my family would be able to afford their plane tickets to the UK.

That’s when one of the hosts from Refugees at Home generously offered to pay for the flights. It wasn’t even a host who had let me stay with them – just a woman who I’d only met once and knew of my story.

I was so overwhelmed with happiness and it was all happening so fast – especially after having to wait so long throughout my asylum process.

So in February 2018, the host I was living with drove us to Heathrow Airport in the early hours of the morning so we could meet my family at the arrivals gate.

Words cannot express my happiness at seeing them for the first time – I just felt so grateful for everyone who helped make it happen.

For the next few weeks, we stayed with a series of new hosts because it was understandably a lot to ask for people to now host four refugees rather than just one. Eventually, we moved into a house in High Wycombe provided by a refugee group, which helped us get on our feet.

For the next year or so, I had to complete my UK medical exams so that I could continue to practice medicine in this country. I finished them in January last year so immediately signed up to a job agency and thankfully, I started working in an intensive care unit in London in March.

Being a doctor means the world to me because it’s my passion to be around patients and relieve their pain. I love using my skills and knowledge to help people because I feel it’s important to give back.

It was such a relief to have a full-time job after all that time but this was exactly the same month the UK went into its first national lockdown; it was really tough starting this job in a pandemic.

At the time, there was a huge shortage of healthcare professionals because the NHS was already stretched so thin so it was not easy. I was working with Covid-19 patients in critical conditions, while at the same time trying to get used to a hospital environment I wasn’t familiar with.

It was a complete shock and very challenging, but I’m comforted by the fact that I’m helping people.

Medical staff from all different fields came together to work in the ICU and in those initial stages, no one was certain about anything. It was incredibly exhausting but gradually, I became more and more familiar with the system and we got through the first wave.

I’m still working in the intensive care unit and it’s difficult but it’s incredibly rewarding. Each day presents a new challenge but I’m so glad I can help give back to a country that’s provided so much to me and my family.

After working in a hospital, I was able to save money for my family to move into our own place and we’ve been there ever since. We’ve tried to make it as homely as possible and it finally feels like we’re back to being ourselves again after such a long time of hardships and instability.

My children are now attending school and my husband works online in digital marketing so everything feels settled. I can’t even imagine where I’d be if it wasn’t for the generosity and kindness of the hosts at Refugees at Home.

I’m just so thankful my family is all safe and happy – but most importantly, we’re together.

To find out more about Refugees at Home, visit their website here.

Immigration Nation

Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email [email protected]

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