A pet cockatiel called Shreek sings cheerfully in his cage in a tiny apartment in the northern British city of Bradford. Shreek’s owner, Syrian refugee Bashar Farhat, bought the bird to help take the edge off his own feeling of isolation.
Bashar Farhat and his pet bird.
“My closest friends, all members of the Syrian opposition, are now scattered around the world,” said 31-year-old Farhat. “ My friends are in Turkey, Lebanon , Germany, Sweden, France, all over the world. I do feel lonely. ”
A hospital doctor by profession, he said he was imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime. Today re-settled in Bradford along with around 250 other Syrian exiles, Bashar seems relieved to be safe but is desperately homesick and anxious that he may not soon be able to resume his medical career in the UK.
“I have to take some very tough exams in English and in medicine if I want to practice again,” he said. “I spent ten years as a doctor in Syria. I want to practice medicine here. But I’m not sure I will be able to.”
The mood among many of the Syrian refugees in Bradford is understandably subdued. But Ayham al Halibi from Damascus is very upbeat about his new life here.
“I like England. I find this city is the best city for the Syrian,” said 20-year-old al Halibi, who works part time in a falafel shop in the centre of Bradford.
He arrived here last year with his widowed mother and his two brothers. The younger one is being treated for leukemia. The family’s healthcare, accommodation, education and some living expenses are paid for by the British taxpayer.
“I like the British people. And really thank you to the British people to receive us in their country,” he said.
But other refugees have found less to be thankful for.
Sara Hamsi, an architect from the Syrian city of Homs, is very dissatisfied with her living quarters in Bradford, an impoverished and rather dilapidated city.
“The roof is leaking in the house where they put me,” she complained. “But they don’t mend the roof, they only replace the plasterboard ceiling. So when it rains, more water comes through the ceiling. And the weather here is horrible!”
Because she arrived in the UK on her own, Hamsi does not get anything like the welfare payments that refugee families receive, and she says after paying her utility bills she has only $125 a month for food.
“I thank the government gives us many things but maybe not enough money. We need more,” she said.
Meanwhile, among Bradford’s local population there is sympathy for the plight of the refugees mixed with anxiety about their impact on the city if many thousands of them settle here. Some residents fret about an “over-influx” placing a heavy burden on local schools and healthcare services and others are insisting that all the refugees be subjected to rigorous security checks to ensure they do not pose a terrorist threat.
But one elderly local man told Marketplace, “Bradford has always offered a safe haven to refugees. If the Syrians need help, Bradford will help them.”