A family who opened their home to a Syrian refugee say their lives have been enriched by the presence of a young man who refuses to let the horrors of war Wha dull his smile. Joanna Morris reports

JUST hours before embarking upon the gruelling journey that would change his life, Mouhyedin Alkhalil was told by his beloved parents that arrangements had been made for him to flee Syria and there was no time to say goodbye.

He was just 18 and had spent much of his adolescence in the shadow of war, forced to move from house to house as bombing raids destroyed his city.

Since arriving in Darlington a year ago this month, the young man, now 25, has learned enough English to be able to speak of the heart-rending experiences that left him estranged from his parents and everything he knew, forced to carve out a new life thousands of miles from home.

In faltering tones, he speaks of a day-to-day existence where there was no escape from the bombs, the death and the destruction wrought by a war that has left a country decimated and its people dispersed.

Mouhyedin’s childhood home was the family seat for more than 100 years before it was flattened in the conflict that ravages Syria to this day. He moved home repeatedly but there was no escape from the bombs that continued to rain down upon Homs, from the bullets and the atrocities of war. As a teenager, Mouhyedin lost friends, loved ones and life as he knew it, forced to abandon his studies when bloodthirsty snipers lined the streets that led to his law exams, “shooting at everything they see, dogs, cats, people".

“Every day was different,” he says, with an intensity at odds with his usual sunny demeanour.“You never knew what would happen, people would go to work and not come home – dead. People would stay home – dead. You would be laughing and joking with friends and then the next minute, bombs.”

The evening before he fled the country, the student was facing the threat of forced enlistment into President Bashar al-Assad’s army, where: “I would be killed or have to kill others.” His pleas to stay in Syria, where he could help his family, fell on deaf ears as his loved ones insisted he leave for the Lebanon, fearing he would die otherwise. Hours later, he found himself in a foreign country, where he went on to “learn too much about life” as he continued to develop a resilience that has impressed those who know him in Darlington.

AS part of a vulnerable person resettlement programme, the United Nations gave Mouhyedin the opportunity to move to the UK, where he hopes to thrive. Among the first friends he made were Fran and Martin Wood, who help to resettle people as part of Darlington Assistance for Refugees (DAR).

After developing a firm friendship, they eventually opened their home to him, inviting him to live there after his insistence on studying while working three part-time, minimum wage jobs left him unable to afford his rent and bills. “The Job Centre told me not to work because my English was bad – they wanted to give me money but I wanted to work, not be kept like a pet,” he says.

Mouhyedin, who has a baby sister in Syria he has not yet met, adds: “I love it in Darlington. I am sad, because I miss my home and my family but I know if I am sad, nothing will change and so I try to be happy and then I can get work and help those I love.

“It was a good idea for me to live with Fran and Martin because it helps me to improve my language and it makes me happy, it was a beautiful thing for them to do.”

In turn, his friends say that the experience is mutually beneficial, that their lives have been enriched by a young man whose resilience and insistence on smiling through adversity has proved inspirational.

“Mouhyedin has taught us an awful lot and I have so many dreams for him”, says Fran. “He has been through so much and he deserves to have a good job, a good life – the positivity he carries with him, despite everything, is precious. It is a privilege and honour to have him stay with us.

“He is a walking example of what happens when you smile, stay positive and hold onto your dreams. People will then help you, not because they feel sorry for you but because they see that you are going somewhere and will do something with your life.”

Martin adds: “It is an absolute pleasure to have Mouhyedin here, he has enriched our lives and we have learned so much from him – we have been very lucky.”

DAR, which is not a fostering agency, will host an information evening for anyone considering welcoming people into their families at Mangobean in Darlington on Thursday, November 2 from 7pm.