When asked her favorite thing about her mom Chadia Bchir, 15-year-old Nour Alsaleh says without hesitation, it’s her smile. She sees in it the strength it took her mother to leave war-torn Syria to raise her and her brother in safety in the United Kingdom.
“Your smile gives me hope,” she tells Chadia. “I think without you, my dad would probably not have taken the step to leave. You’re an amazing, strong woman.”
Nour and her 16-year-old brother, Zain, arrived with their mom in the UK in 2016, six months after their father Mezan arrived. The family now lives in Brighton, on the southern coast of England. This year, with support from the IRC's job readiness training, Chadia, 45, was able to get her first job in the UK as a school cafeteria worker. Chadia stayed busy even before this opportunity, volunteering to cook meals for vulnerable people who have been home-bound during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For her part, Nour hopes to one day work for the United Nations and support other people who are coping with the experience of being a refugee.
When forced to flee their home, refugees like Chadia and Nour can only carry so much. But they also bring so many intangible gifts to their new communities: hopes and dreams, experiences and talents, traditions and family stories, resilience and determination.
Chadia and Nour interviewed one another about their memories of Syria, adjusting to life in the UK, and the hopes and dreams they’ve carried throughout their journey. This World Refugee Day, watch and share their moving story.
Chadia: I love you.
Nour: I love you too.
Chadia: Even sometimes you make some trouble.
Nour: Yeah. We’re still learning.
Chadia: Do you know why we’re here today?
Nour: So, we’re here today to share our life and how it has changed from when we were in Syria. Yeah, and share the memories.
Nour: So tell me about when I was a baby?
Chadia: You were a very optimistic baby. And your face, every time, smiled. And I see the future when I look into your eyes.
Nour: Oh, thank you.
Chadia: And you, what do you remember about Syria?
Nour: I was young, but I remember a lot. Um, I remember the food.
Chadia: Maybe you’re hungry, no?
Nour: I remember the beautiful smell of jasmine. Um, the markets, the people. I used to play with my cousins and have picnics and it was really nice.
Chadia: Under the tree.
Nour: Yeah, under the trees. Yeah.
Chadia:Yeah, it was very nice.
Nour: So how did our life change when the war started?
Chadia: It completely changed. Yeah, completely. 100 percent. Yeah, because before the war, it was everything available. We have, like, house, car, good job—me and your dad. And just, I leave my house for maybe two or three days.
Nour: Yeah, you thought that.
Chadia: But I have never gone back again.
Nour: Yeah. I also want to say something. So, when I was young, like before war, life was all good and stuff. And then you opened a gym. We thought it was, like … a new business, we’re going to have a good life, and everything’s going good. Until that day, I still remember, when war started. And I remember we just opened the gym, and then there were people shouting and saying, like, “Go, go, you have to go, you have to leave.” And you got out. You were trying to lock the door: you held my brother's hand and my hand with one arm, and with the other one tried to lock the door. Yeah, I still remember that moment. Now I feel like, yes, we should have left Syria.
Nour: Do you think it’s changed who you are? Like, the person you are? War, did it change the way you think?
Chadia: Yes. Yeah. I never think about travel before. I never think to leave my country before, because everything was available. But during the war, uh, you have to find safe life. If you have family, especially children. And every time, I was scared. If my children go out, maybe not come back, or my husband go to work, maybe not come back. Every time, every moment, I was very scared. So yeah, it was very hard.
Nour: Also because it was you who …
Chadia:… made the decision.
Nour:… made the decision, for my dad to leave, and who persuaded him to leave. That's why you had all the responsibility if anything happened to us or to him.
Chadia: Exactly. Every time I try to be happy in front of people, because I don’t like to make … [pauses]. But inside I was very worried and scared.
Nour: Even when my dad was in Syria we were already scared.
Nour:Now, he’s not with you—well, when he wasn't with you—you were obviously going to be more scared.
Nour: What kept you going when things got hard? And how did you stay so strong?
Chadia: You mean here or in Syria?
Nour: In Syria. Like when dad left.
Chadia: So, I think it took six months. Or, more, six to seven months, uh, without him, and to come to the U.K and meet him.
Nour: How do you remember the six months? Did you feel like it was long or short?
Chadia: Very long, and like a dream, a bad dream. But in front of you, I tried to be happy and make something good. I don't like to feel sad, or, “My dad not here.”
Nour: Now when i think about it, I remember how strong you are. But I remember you were really happy when you got a call about when my dad arrived here in the U.K. at night.
Chadia: Oh, yeah, it was like three o’clock … midnight.
Nour: Yeah. That’s when I thought I saw your happy face.
Chadia: Tell me what arriving in the U.K. was like for you. What do you remember?
Nour: When I first arrived, I saw my dad. I hugged him so hard.
Chadia: Do you remember good things in the airport?
Nour: Yes! So when we first arrived, he [Nour’s dad] didn’t bring flowers. [Jokingly] It was very bad.
Chadia: What did he bring?
Nour: He brought a lot of chocolates. They were all melted! [But] it was really nice. And he said that you are his flower.
Chadia: And Zane forgot the baggage.
Nour:Yeah, and Zane left all our suitcases behind and just went to dad, and we had to look for them. And, yeah, I felt really happy.
Nour: What were you surprised to learn about the U.K, when you first came here?
Chadia: Driving license!
Nour: Yeah, the driving license.
Nour: Do you think that when you first arrived that language will be the hardest thing?
Chadia: I think so, yeah, because sometimes, uh, people misunderstand something because they don’t know the meaning, maybe. Sometimes, I speak, like, something in a good way … but they think, this is bad way.
Nour: They misunderstand.
Chadia: This is different and very difficult and, yeah, not easy.
Nour: It happens, definitely.
Chadia: Nour, what has been the most challenging part for you? You still have challenges, I think.
Nour: Well, firstly, schools. I was always thinking about schools, friends ...
Chadia: You are silent.
Nour: I was really shy, because I felt, like, I don’t want to speak because they might make fun of me, of the way I speak. Whether it’s my accent or, like, the language in general. So I was just always shy. That was really challenging, to overcome my shyness and, obviously, meeting new friends was also really challenging.
Chadia: What are your favorite things about our new community in Brighton.
Nour: Brighton, where I live, is the best city probably ,because they’re the most helpful people I’ve ever met. And I think I’m pretty sure without them we would probably be in a very hard situation right now. It kind of reminds me of Syria, like, where I used to live … its nature …
Chadia:… different people, different religions.
Nour: Different religions
Chadia:Yeah, it’s nice.
Nour: Other than that, I also love the sea. I think whenever I go, walk by the sea front, that’s when I forget everything. Just look at the sea and the sunset.
Nour: Can you tell me more about volunteering during the pandemic?
Chadia: Yeah, I try do something good during the pandemic because I feel, um, lots of people need help and I don’t like to just stay at home … do nothing.
Nour: What did you do?
Chadia: I tried to help old people to cook, make, like, dishes for, ah, old people or vulnerable people, and make different meals every time.
Nour: I remember you used to bring some home and they were delicious.
Nour: What has this experience, of having to leave home to come to a new country, taught you?
Chadia: Ah … to be patient. Yeah, I have to be patient. And i need hard work to get everything what I need. Yeah, life’s not easy.
Nour: Yeah, that’s what it taught me.
Chadia: It is hard but you can get it, if you work hard.
Chadia: Is there anything you want people to know about refugees?
Nour: First of all, they’re not different from us...like, they’re not different from you. It’s just that they carry more sorrow with them and they just need more help. More support to, I guess, forget what happened to them.
Chadia:They carry a lot of sadness.
Nour: We should make them feel welcome, because their country didn’t make them feel welcome.
Nour: What were your hopes or dreams for me?
Chadia: Big hope for you. I like to see you on the good life—good health, first thing. Yeah, and whatever you want to be, I’m happy. I’m really proud of you. I love you!
Nour:I love you too!