An estimated five million Syrians have been forced to flee the country’s long-running civil war - 200 of whom are making a new life for themselves in East Sussex. Your County met one family who’ve swapped their conflict-torn homeland for the sanctuary of the Sussex countryside.
What would it be like to bring up your family in a country where the sound of gunfire and the whistle of falling bombs provide the soundtrack to daily life?
It’s a situation Abdulsalam Youssfan knows only two well. The 33-year-old ran a successful clothing business when, in 2011, anti-Government protests in Syria flared into outright civil war. “We had a happy life in Syria – I had my family, my friends and my business there,” he says. “Then the war started. Every night the bombs came and people were dying in the streets.“It’s very frightening – you’re worried all the time and you can’t sleep, can’t leave the house. You don’t know who is your friend and who is your enemy. We couldn’t stay there – it was too dangerous.”
Abdulsalam is one of 20,000 Syrian refugees being rehomed in the UK and since late 2016 has lived in leafy Herstmonceux with wife Qamar and children Elaf, nine, Yazan, six, and Sulaf, three.
Yazan, his only son, was just a baby when Abdulsalam and his family fled their western Syrian hometown of Hama, midway between the capital, Damascus, and the embattled northern city of Aleppo.
It was a hair-raising journey, part of which involved him ferrying 10 family members to safety, two at a time, on the back of his motorbike, as the war raged around them. “It was like a bad dream,” he says. “I was riding along the road between the people who were fighting. The army followed me because they saw my motorbike and thought I was one of the rebels, but I managed to get away.”
The war intensified, pitching the forces of President Bashar al-Assad against rebel militias and jihadists – including ISIS, which at one point controlled more territory than the Syrian Government itself.
While Lebanon offered a sanctuary from the war, rising tensions between the local population and the 1.5 million Syrians who fled there meant Abdulsalam and his family no longer felt secure.“The people in Lebanon were not nice to us,” he says. “They hate Syrians because the Government of Syria fought Lebanon in the past and there’s always fighting. People have died. The children there carry guns – it’s not a safe place for my family.After four years in Lebanon, the family received the welcome news they’d been granted the right to move to the UK under the Government’s Syrian resettlement programme and a home had been found for them in Herstmonceux.
Any refugee arriving in the UK receives intensive support to ease the transition to a new, and strange country. Developing their English skills is vital, as Simon Finlay, the Hastings Borough Council officer who co-ordinates the programme in East Sussex, explains. “The aim is to get them as quickly as possible to a level of English where they don’t have to rely on benefits and they can stand on their own two feet, and hopefully take up the professions they were doing in Syria,” he says.“These people have left their country not by choice or to seek a better life but because they were in danger and had no option.“Many of them have experienced torture, violence, the loss of family members or the destruction of their homes. They’ve seen people dying next to them.”
The subject of refugees has at times been a contentious topic in the media, but Simon says the reaction to those coming to East Sussex has been ‘universally positive’ – a view Abdulsalam confirms.
While worried for those family members he and his wife have had to leave behind, he says he’s determined to build a life for himself and his family in his adopted home and plans to start his own clothing business here. “It’s a very nice village and everyone has been very welcoming,” he says. “We have freedom here and everyone lives under the law. My children are very happy and there’s no fear, no crying.“I want to stay here and to set up a big business, my children to grow up happy and to study and I want the war in Syria to end – soon. “I wouldn’t want my children to grow up there – it’s not safe. I’d like to go back to Syria, but only to visit. This is my home now.”
Written by Tim Fletcher. Photos by Rohan Van Twest