My children were almost kidnapped after we escaped Syria


As I was dropping my eight-year-old daughter off to school while holding my toddler son’s hand, I heard a motorbike approaching next to me and I felt a pull.

I looked down through the crowd at my three-year-old son and realised two teenage boys were trying to grab and ride off with him. I managed to hold him with both of my arms, but in doing so, they lunged for my daughter.

At that moment, I pulled one of them off the motorbike and he fell to the ground. He ran off while the other drove away and left my son and daughter – and me – shaking in fear.

That incident in Egypt scarred my son for a very long time and it wasn’t until my family sought asylum that he finally felt confident enough not to be by my side constantly.

As a Syrian refugee who fled to Cairo and then settled in the UK, this wasn’t the first time I felt unsafe – and it wouldn’t be the last.

Life growing up in Syria was good until the conflict and civil war erupted in 2010. At the time when the conflict escalated, I was teaching at the University of Damascus and studying a master’s course.

The moment I realised my family had to leave my home country was when my daughter’s nursery was locked down by the government-controlled army and I couldn’t get in contact with her.

For several hours, I was worried sick about her and all I knew was that some people had come into the city of Damascus and it was under threat, so they had to deploy the military. 

When I was finally reunited with my daughter, I knew our lives had to change.

At the time of the incident, I was heavily pregnant with my son and we had to wait for three months until I gave birth. Within that time, the violence escalated.

So after talking it over with my husband and family – including my sister, twin brother, his family and my mother – we decided to leave everything behind and fly to Egypt for a few weeks while we figured out what to do. We didn’t even throw out the food in our fridge because we thought we’d be imminently coming back.

We’ve still never returned home.

We crossed from Syria to Lebanon through the dangerous border area by car and from there we flew to Egypt. We chose Cairo because it was the only country in the area at the time that was still accepting Syrians.

As soon as we landed in Cairo in 2012, everything felt strange.

One day, I woke up to find that our first-floor flat had been burgled overnight (Picture: Mada/Refugee Action)

It felt like two worlds – one for the rich and one for the poor. We could only afford to live in the latter, which was dangerous and very dirty. Even small things like walking with a pram was impossible because there were no streets so I had to carry my baby boy.

After a month or so, my husband decided to accept a job at a TV channel in Egypt that was vocal against what was happening in Syria. For this reason, we knew we wouldn’t be able to go back to our home country so tried to settle where we were, which was devastating to realise.

So for the first year of us living there, I was so depressed and hardly ever went out because I couldn’t face the reality of our lives. My son was a baby then anyway so I focussed on him and my daughter.

After a year in Egypt, I took a part-job teaching French at schools and a local university. That helped me make friends with people and start to feel comfortable in the new environment.

One day, I woke up to find that our first-floor flat had been burgled overnight. They stole my laptop and every other smart device in our flat, including my sister’s phone from next to my son’s bed as he was sleeping.

After that, I asked the landlord if they could do anything to protect us and they said just to close the window at night.

A few months later, I happened to be closing the window as a young boy tried to climb the balcony and come into our flat. He got scared and jumped down, then ran away.

A third time, I heard someone trying to come through the window so I screamed for help and the burglar scurried off.

It was hard to feel safe in a place after that but my priority was trying not to scare my kids by telling them about it, otherwise they would be terrified about living there.

Then the kidnapping incident happened about three years into living in Egypt, so we knew that we had to do something to change our circumstances.

Unfortunately, one night in 2015, my husband’s TV channel got raided by the Egyptian authorities and people working at his company got threatened with jail. This is because the channel was critical of the Syrian regime and my husband was a senior manager so he was exposed to danger.

So my husband, children and I fled to Turkey – because the country accepted Syrians without visas at the time – within 24 hours.

In Turkey, we didn’t feel safe either so my husband knew that he needed to go to Europe – and then the UK because he already spoke English – to find us a safe place. The plan was for him to apply for asylum and then we would later hope to join him through family reunification.

Saying goodbye to him was one of the hardest moments of my life because I didn’t know when or if I was going to see him again.

Our first impression of Glasgow was how wonderful and green it all was (Picture: Mada/Refugee Action)

While he was travelling across Europe to get to the UK, my children and I went back to Egypt to be with the rest of my family. While there, I started two part-time jobs as a French teacher to be able to provide. Consequently, I had to spend less time with my children so my mother looked after them.

My husband’s journey from Turkey to Greece alone took about three months and it wasn’t easy for him. He then travelled to Belgium and Paris, then finally to the UK – which took a total of six months. He had a phone but he didn’t always have reception so it could be up to a month before I heard from him.

Not knowing if he was safe really destroyed me and my imagination ran wild. Then in the summer of 2016, I received a call from a detention centre in the UK to say that my husband was safe. I felt so much relief because finally there was some hope in our lives.

Over the next two years, his asylum application was refused twice and then finally approved at the start of 2018. He called me on a Thursday with the good news – and I was so happy – so by Monday, we’d set up an appointment in Egypt on my end for me to sort out the visas for myself and our children.

There were some delays due to complications in receiving the visa a day before its expiry and having to reapply for it, as well as my passport being due to expire at the time. But when everything was finally approved in June of that year, we flew out of Cairo to be reunited with my husband in Scotland.

Saying goodbye to the rest of my family was incredibly emotional because I had no idea when I was going to see them next as they could not come to the UK with us.

As soon as we landed in Glasgow, my husband met us at the airport and it was such a bittersweet moment.

My six-year-old son hadn’t seen his father in almost three years so he didn’t actually warm up to his dad at first. This was very hard for my husband because he missed us all so much so to have this strained and distant relationship hurt very much.

Our first impression of Glasgow was how wonderful and green it all was – when we were in Egypt and Syria, there was hardly any greenery, so my children were in awe of the trees, grass and flowers in the UK.

Since the beginning, I’ve been supported by the Red Cross. They’ve helped organise English language classes, which has given me the confidence to be able to leave the house and talk to people. I’ve met some wonderful people through the group, who now feel like family.

Within a couple of months after our arrival, my children started school, which was difficult because they didn’t know English that well. They now love it.

My husband works as a delivery driver and I studied to become a teaching assistant, which I’ll hopefully be starting next year.

Something remarkable happened about one year after arriving in the UK. When my family was at Queen’s Park in Scotland, my son finally started to leave my side and stop hiding behind me. He ran off with his sister to go play and I was so happy that he finally felt safe to be able to do that after the trauma of his attempted kidnapping.

I just wish more refugee children are given the opportunity to thrive here too because having this hope for the future is what keeps my family going.

Families Together is a coalition of over 90 organisations such as the VOICES Network, Amnesty International UK and the Red Cross who campaign to bring families together. Members of the VOICES Network share their stories to bring about positive change for issues that affect people seeking asylum, refugees, and other vulnerable migrants.



Immigration Nation

Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatise the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who’ve arrived in the UK – and called it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk


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