At a recent event commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day at the United Reform Church in Exeter, a group of locals listened as a Syrian couple described their new life in Devon.
Walaa Hemesho and her husband Hajji Shikh Hussein detailed their passage from war-torn Syria to the southwest of England, offering a harrowing tale of loss, perseverance and determination.
Hajji, who was arrested for photocopying an article critical of the regime, told the group that he still missed his parents and the rest of his family, who have been forced to flee to six different countries.
However, his loss has resulted in a vital gain. “Freedom is the most important,” wrote Devon Live, quoting his speech.
I could never have the freedom of speech, of lifestyle. Home is where you feel safe and respected, where you have rights, free from fear, having choices. Home is where you have hope and a future.”
In a harrowing account, Walaa described the period that followed her husband’s arrest. Bodies were being carried through the streets, and the conflict resulted in the death of her younger sister.
At this point, she decided to flee to Lebanon, where she was eventually reunited with Hajji following his release.
Walaa and Hajji were resettled in the UK with the help of Devon County Council and Refugee Support Devon (RSD), an Exeter-based organisation that supports the local community in welcoming newly arrived refugees.
RSD provides advice, outreach, English language tutoring and employment guidance. The efforts of the group and the wider Exeter community have had a profound effect on Walaa and Hajjii, who are slowly creating a new life despite all they’ve been through.
Walaa is now a primary school teaching assistant after studying at Exeter College, and Hajji is doing research on refugees for an MA at the University of Exeter.
Their daughter, who is seven, cried due to the language barrier when she first arrived. Today, she is teaching her mum English phrases.
The couple’s story shows how beneficial a supportive and active community is for refugees. It allows them to create a life both fulfilling and productive, even after a fraught past once made this reality seem like an impossibility.
“I am very happy with my new life in Britain,” Walaa said.