My Label and Me: I ignore what people say about refugees like me
Being a refugee in Britain, you can sometimes feel like an outsider. It is all too easy to get drawn into the sensationalist media headlines about division and hatred.
When I first arrived I felt misunderstood, with some people not understanding my situation at home or why I had to escape. For many people, including myself, your label as a refugee can follow you around and can make you feel different from everyone else.
However, I am proud of my background and have worked hard to both settle here in the UK, where I have found my refuge, as well as holding onto my Syrian heritage. I came to Britain eight years ago, scared and nervous as many others are when they come here; it was my dedication to exposing the Assad regime and supporting other refugees that kept me focused and determined.
Unfortunately, I am all too used to labels. As a journalist from Damascus, Syria, I felt it was my duty to cover the unfolding violence between Syrian civilians and the Assad regime. I was often framed as an enemy to Assad as I exposed his increasingly tyrannical and vindictive reaction to unrest. For years, the Syrian Intelligence services detained me so they could interrogate me about my articles.
They constantly threatened my family and me with physical violence. At one point I was interviewed by a Western journalist about the ongoing violence in Syria, exposing how hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians were being threatened and tortured. Following the publication of this I was detained for hours.
On another occasion, the Syrian Intelligence mistakenly identified me as the author of an article exposing the brutal treatment of political prisoners, during the resulting interrogation they threatened to sever my hands if I continued to attack Assad.
It’s no surprise that I feared for my life and my loved ones. I left Syria with my five-year-old son, leaving behind the psychological torture, threats to my life and constant intrusion by Syrian intelligence services. Of course, even when you leave those years of living in fear, painful memories of the past can stay with you.
My experience is not unusual; many people are forced to leave behind their family, their lives and their homes. Moving to a country with a different language and a different way of life can feel daunting.
However, it was also an opportunity to break the shackles of a perilous life, people that come here shouldn’t take that for granted. I am one of the lucky few from Syria who have reached a safer country and built a new life. Due to my work as a journalist, I often came to London to deliver training courses for human rights organisations on reporting war crimes and the warzone in Syria. Not only was I welcomed with open arms, my knowledge was respected and appreciated.
However, for other refugees like myself, I understand how it’s difficult to have the confidence to embrace what is offered here. Though there is a sense of relief of being safe from extreme danger, navigating life and settling in is not as easy at first.
It was hard to be without my family and friends. Syria was where I grew up and initially I found it difficult to connect with people. After a while I became more involved in volunteering with charities and at my son’s school I met other parents and made friends. This only built up my confidence and kept me busy so my mind wouldn’t focus too much on the tragedy occurring back home.
Over time, tabloid sensationalist headlines and ignorance from small minorities didn’t bother me anymore. Being here shows me how lucky I am to be alive. Living here means I can write freely, continue my education and have more freedoms here as a woman than I ever had at home.
People seeking refuge here should not be scared of being labelled, or feel isolated; there are many people out there willing to help. There is no easy solution and it’s an ongoing process for communities to unite, but Britain offers us a safe haven some people can only dream of.
Bahia Mardini is the founder of Syrian House, which helps other people who have escaped the war with English classes, counselling and advice on how to settle here.
Labels is an exclusive series that hears from individuals who have been labelled – whether that be by society, a job title, or a diagnosis. Throughout the project, writers will share how having these words ascribed to them shaped their identity — positively or negatively — and what the label means to them.
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