More than 1,200 Syrian refugees have settled in our region since 2014. Fadi Abdullatif arrived in Darlington as a teenager. Joanna Morris spoke to him about his new life.

KEEN footballer and aspiring plumber Fadi Abdullatif grew up in Homs, surrounded by family and friends, settled and happy in a city he remembers as quiet and friendly.

He was in his teens and working alongside his father at their family bakery when he was forced to flee the horrors of war and the looming threat of forced conscription.

By the time he left in 2013, the ancient city of Homs was besieged and engulfed in the conflict that swept through Syria.

“I was scared, from 2011 there were so many problems,” Fadi says.

“Fire was everywhere, you could not go out, I had to stay at home all day – we would be without electricity, without food or water for days.

“It was awful, cities around Homs tried to help us but we did not even have working hospitals.

“Injured people died because there were no hospitals, no cars – this is why I had to leave.”

Fadi was just 18 when he arrived in the North-East in 2016, a life-changing journey having taken him from his loved ones in Syria to the Lebanon and eventually, to Darlington.

Now thriving in his adopted hometown, he tells the story of how the United Nations sent him to the UK and the impact his new home has had on his life.

“When I left Syria, there were so many problems, especially for young men my age – my family were so worried”, he says.

“I left alone, my parents stayed in Homs, but I had uncles in the Lebanon and went there, where I stayed for three years.

“It was a hard life there, there was a lot of racism towards Syrian people and it was very difficult to find work.”

The Northern Echo:

Fadi’s family approached the United Nations for help and were eventually told that they had been selected to move to the UK, where they could live together under the terms of a resettlement scheme that sees local authorities receive a Home Office grant to cover costs associated with the settlement of Syrian refugees.

Together with his parents, brother and sister, the 18-year-old arrived at Newcastle Airport in 2016, apprehensive and uncertain.

“We had no choice about where we went – we knew people who had been sent to France and had learned about life there but when we were told we were going to Britain, we knew nothing about the country and had nobody to ask.

“Arriving in the airport, we saw people waiting for us and it was really, really nice.

“We were made to feel welcome straight away and I have not felt that anywhere else, seeing their smiles and everyone happy to see us helped us to feel comfortable.”

Language barriers and the complexities and administrative issues faced by those settling into a new country meant not everything was plain sailing for Fadi and his family, but with the help of local support services – including Darlington Assistance for Refugees and the town’s council – they soon found their feet and Fadi began to thrive in his adopted community.

“In the beginning, it was so hard – I didn’t speak English and was very shy, but the council and DAR helped us a lot.

“We were nervous at first and did not feel safe straight away but they did not let us down and they have pushed us forward.

“I am so happy here now and can do so many things that are not now possible in my country – I can study and am now at college.

“I play football with Darlington RA FC, I’ve learned English and I’m going to train to become a plumber.

“In Syria, I wouldn’t be safe, I would have to stay at home and could not do anything or go anywhere as I can here – my family would have to worry about me all of the time.”

While friends of Fadi’s have faced racism and intolerance elsewhere in the North-East, the 21-year-old insists Darlington people have been nothing but accepting of the Syrian families who have settled there.

“People do not treat me as a refugee here, they treat me the same as everybody else,” he says.

“Darlington has got it right and I never want to leave – it has not been always easy and there have been some problems but they are small and have all pushed me forward.

“I want people to understand that we refugees are coming here to find safety, not to steal benefits.

“We want to work – in my country, there are no benefits and if you are healthy and do not work, people will look down at you.

“When I came here, I did not know anything about this country or the culture and British people did not know much about mine.

“But when we have talked and learned who each other is, when we have shared our cultures, they have learned a lot from us and we have learned a lot from them.”