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Ahed photographed by Kitty Gale
We sit on the beach and she tells me her story. Ahed was born in Damascus Syria in the 1980s. She grew up there, and studied there, fulfilling her ambitions to teach English before becoming the principal of a secondary school in 2013.
In 2015, after five years of war in Syria, her husband Mazen left and endured a six-month journey, via Turkey and Calais, to reach the UK. He found them a safe home to rent in Bournemouth and Ahed and their two sons, Anas and Amjad, then 11 and nine, joined him. They had not seen their father for a year.
I left my parents, my house, my achievements, my friends, my job and even my ambitions that I had worked hard to fulfil back in my country.
While I listen I am moved by her openness. She has a sense of calm about her that clashes intensely with the trauma she has experienced. I feel completely humbled by her strength, as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister. We take the photographs quietly afterwards and I ask her to think about Syria, her parents, all that she has left and lost. The quiet is comfortable and I notice how often she smiles. So much grace.
Both boys started school just one month after arriving in Bournemouth. The boys used to get frightened whenever they heard an aeroplane and it took a long time for them to properly trust that they were safe.
I visit them at their home and meet the boys and Mazen. They are so kind. Ahed puts a box of chocolates down on the table next to me and says,
“These are all for you.”
It makes me smile.
Anas, now 15, plays football for Christchurch. I ask if I can photograph the boys together outside, Anas wearing his Christchurch FC shirt. Amjad, now 13, disappears for a minute and then joins us in the garden wearing his Syria shirt. Back inside I notice there are lots of tiny butterflies decorating the walls of their home. Ahed tells me that back in Syria the walls of the school where she worked were riddled in bullet holes, and she used to decorate them with butterflies and flowers so that the children would feel happy when they arrived.
Now, Ahed works for ICN as an interpreter. She wants to find a way back into teaching but explains how none of her qualifications translate to our education system and she doesn’t know where to begin. She also hopes to return to Syria one day.
Working with Ahed has opened my eyes in a myriad of ways. I’ve confronted feelings of embarrassment and anxiety at my own privilege alongside a reverential respect for all that Ahed and her family have experienced, and what so many people are still experiencing. It’s easy to simplify the word ‘refugee’ and we need to appreciate that every single person has their own unique story; not one of them should be generalised.
People are unfathomably resilient. I feel very lucky to have met Ahed and her family. They’ve found a safe home here and the boys are well settled. They want to tell their story again and again in the hope that it might educate and inform others.