As Hiba brushes her daughter’s hair, getting her ready for the first day of preschool, 4-year-old Nasrin chats away excitedly. She grins as she brushes her teeth and talks about how much she loves her mummy while she puts on her shoes.

Apart from a small scar at the bottom of her neck, barely visible at the top of her T-shirt, no one would know that Nasrin has had two rounds of open-heart surgery.

Syrian-Kurdish refugees Maasom and Hiba hold their children Nasrin and Omar.
My children give me strength and courage.” Kurdish-Syrian refugees Maasom and his wife Hiba have been living in Andover, in southeastern England, for almost three years. They have two children, Nasrin and Omar.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick/IRC

“I still cannot believe that Nasrin now is growing and learning,” says Maasom, her father, as he walks with Nasrin hand in hand to school.

The flight to life

The family now live in Andover, a market town in southeast England. Kurdish-Syrian refugees, Maasom and Hiba were living in a refugee camp in Iraq when Nasrin was born. She seemed like a normal, healthy baby … until her skin turned blue.

Baby Nasrin sleeps in the hospital in Iraq where she is being treated for a heart condition.
Nasrin in the hospital in Iraq.
Photo: Nasrin's family

“We took her to the doctors,” says Maasom, “Her oxygen level was 45 percent.” A normal level is 95 or above.

A heart scan revealed that Nasrin needed a procedure that required two complicated operations—and Iraq did not have necessary medical facilities. “We had to find a way to take her abroad,” says Maasom.

The family applied for resettlement to a third country. Meanwhile they waited. “We were always worried and concerned and scared of unexpected incidents,” says Maasom. “Her body turned blue on several occasions. One time she had a convulsion where she passed out because of a lack of oxygen.” The family made do with temporary treatment for a year and three months. “Luckily, we managed to come to the U.K.,” says Maasom.

Maasom stands walks in a churchyard in England as pigeons fly past.
“The feelings of alienation were new to us and very difficult to comprehend," recalls Maasom of the family's first days in the U.K.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick/IRC

Nasrin was accepted by the United Kingdom's resettlement program, which gives a small number of vulnerable individuals the chance to rebuild their life in the UK.

Nasrin’s journey to England was touch and go. “On the way from Turkey, Nasrin’s condition became unstable,” says Maasom. “She suffered from a lack of oxygen and a high fever.”

Nasrin in a hospital bed as a toddler
Nasrin in the hospital for surgery.
Photo: Nasrin's family

Upon arrival, the family were taken straight to Southampton Hospital, where Nasrin was stabilized and prepared for the first of two surgeries. The operation lasted eight hours.

“It was a really hard feeling,” recalls Maasom. “There was no one around to support us emotionally in these circumstances. We were on our own.”

Discovering the United Kingdom

After 40 days, and a second operation, the family was able to travel to their home in Andover to start life in their new country

“Life in the U.K. is very beautiful, if you get it right,” Maasom says, explaining his qualifier. “My language is still weak.” Despite their time in a refugee camp, he and his wife experienced unfamiliar feelings of alienation. They received support from the Hampshire county council, which in turn introduced them to the International Rescue Committee. The IRC recently had started a program to help resettled refugees integrate into southeast England.

“With the IRC cultural orientation program, we learned new things we didn't know before,” says Maasom.

Four-year-old Nasrin stands smiling on her bed with toys around her.
Today Nasrin is a confident girl who makes friends easily and dreams big.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick/IRC

“We learned about our rights and obligations. We have a better idea of how to book appointments with the GP [general practitioner], how to get a driving licence, how to apply for a job.”

Maasom at a British Heart Foundation office, holding a coffee cup.
Maasom volunteers for the British Heart Foundation, a charity that funds research into heart and circulatory diseases like the one that nearly took his daughter’s life.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick/IRC

Maasom started volunteering at the British Heart Foundation, both to make friends and improve his English. “We are trying to learn and improve ourselves and to adapt to life in the U.K.”

Nasrin’s first day of school

Today Nasrin is a confident girl who makes friends easily and dreams big. When she returned home from her first day at school, she was beaming. “Oh, I have friends now! We were playing together."

Hiba crouches next to her 4-year-old daughter Hiba to say goodbye as she gets ready to join her brother going to school.
Hiba helps Nasrin get ready for her first day of school.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick/IRC

“She always tells me that she wants to be a doctor,” says Maasom. “She was in hospitals as a child and now she wants to be a doctor to treat children.”

Maasom and his 4-year-old daughter walk hand in hand to school past a fish and chips shop in Andover, England.
Proud father Maasom walks Nasrin to school. “She always tells me that she wants to be a doctor,” he says.
Photo: Elena Heatherwick/IRC

Maasom can’t be prouder of his daughter, or more thankful for their new life. “It's a great feeling seeing Nasrin going to school,” he says. “For my children to grow up and study here [in the U.K.], they’ll have many opportunities. That's what gives me hope to keep going.”

Maasom holds his 4-year-old daughter Nasrin on her first day of preschool.
“When Nasrin got treated, it was a wonderful feeling,” says Maasom. “We can’t believe that she has recovered.”
Photo: Elena Heatherwick/IRC

Watch Nasrin's story

The Refugee Integration in Southeast England (RISE) project is part-funded by the European Union’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and Khalsa Aid International. This story was originally published by IRC-UK.