'100 thank-yous' - East Devon's first Syrian refugee family thank Sidmouth for its kindness
PUBLISHED: 06:00 06 March 2017 | UPDATED: 08:45 06 March 2017
'It was hard to leave, but had become impossible to stay,' - Mazen Alsawadi
The first Syrian refugee family to be rehomed in East Devon has issued a heartfelt thank-you to the people of Sidmouth for welcoming them with open arms.
Mazen Alsawadi, along with his wife, Wafaa, and their four children, fled from the constant fear of daily bombings in the war-torn country after watching friends, neighbours and colleagues lose their lives.
“It was hard to leave, but had become impossible to stay,” said Mazen, who saw the hospital he worked in destroyed.
He this week issued ‘100 thank-yous’ to the people of Sidmouth for their kindness.
The only Syrian refugee family to be rehomed in East Devon to date, they have reflected on the long journey to safety and the harrowing reality they left behind.
Mazen said: “I worked in hospital security and we had a happy life before the conflict took over. It became very bad in Syria – homes and buildings all around us were being bombed down. A friend lost his life. Every day we faced the bombings.”
The family lived in a small town – about the size of Sidmouth – near Damascus, but, as war raged around them, the eldest children, Jawad, 15, and Shahed, 13, were not even able to go to school because it was too dangerous.
Mazen said people – including doctors – lost their lives when the hospital in which he worked was destroyed. It was soon after this tragedy that he decided it was time for his family to escape.
The daily bombs, he says, were dropped at the hands of the ruling regime – under President Bashar al-Assad – and rebels were fighting on the ground in the civil war that has raged through the country since 2011.
Wafaa, Mazen, Jawad, Shahed and the two youngest children, Aieh, seven, and Laith, six, journeyed from Syria, through Lebanon by car – where they were stopped several times by road blockades – and finally flew to Egypt.
They stayed in Egypt for four years, but found it a difficult existence – Shahed went to school, but Jawed, who is autistic, struggled to continue his education.
Mazen said, while it was comparatively better, he still did not feel his family were properly safe. Because of tough, six-monthly visa renewal rules, they had to face police knocking on their door - sometimes at 6am.
Once granted permission to come to the UK, the family was flown to Bristol Airport. They arrived at 9pm on September 1, last year and were driven in the darkness straight to Sidmouth.
Describing their first weeks here, Mazen said it was very difficult carrying out basic tasks because he spoke no English – and Wafaa and Shahed just a little. He said everyone they encountered was very friendly and welcoming.
They particularly thanked people from Devon Refugee Support and the Ottery Refugee Response Group for assisting them, as well as a Turkish business owner in the town who has provided support, and tutor Louise Brown, who is helping them learn English.
Shahed said that everyone at Sidmouth College has been so welcoming. She did not feel afraid, even on her first day, and she already has several friends in the town.
The two youngest children are thriving at Sidmouth Primary School and Jawad at Mill Water School, in Budleigh Salterton, that specialises in pupils with learning difficulties.
Wafaa admitted they still miss their home in Syria, where they left family and friends behind, and said the situation is still bad there and people have had no electricity or hot water for about a month.
Mazen added: “Everyone in Sidmouth has welcomed us. I want to say thank-you to them – 100 times thank-you.
“We feel very lucky – lucky to not live in Syria any more and have to face danger every day, and also lucky that Sidmouth is such a nice place and people are so nice.”
He and Wafaa recently joined in a Sidmouth Cooks for Syria event and said while the language barrier is tricky, they have huge motivation to learn English and hope to work and give back to the town that has welcomed them.
Huw Hennessy was one of the organisers of the culinary fundraising evening and said the contribution from the couple – with Wafaa giving a cooking masterclass and Mazen a speech about their life in the war-ravaged country – made it a ‘truly memorable’ night.
He added that it enabled the community to make a connection with Syria and expressed hope that this friendship is something Sidmouth will embrace for years to come.