A Syrian family who feared they would die when their village was turned into a warzone and had to pay smugglers to take their baby across the border hidden in a suitcase are now living a new life in Essex.
Zak Al Halak, 34, his wife Ghaliya, 25, and their three children Amneh, 5, Omar, 3, and Zineddine, 1, are just one of 15 Syrian families who have found refuge in our county.
In total, 74 people are living safe and secure new lives in Essex thanks to the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme, a Government scheme coordinated by Essex County Council in partnership with city, district, borough councils and health authorities, along with communities and faith groups.
As the nation marks Refugee Week, a programme to celebrate the contribution of refugees and encourage a better understanding between communities, the Al Halak family has spoken of their escape from war-torn Syria and praised the Council and people of Essex for their enduring kindness.
Zak’s family is building a new life in Essex after the Brightlingsea Refugee Support Group identified a home which was put forward to Tendring District Council for their support.
Zak said: “We would like to thank the UK and the people of Essex so much for welcoming us here. Everyone is very kind and friendly towards us.
“We are lucky to be here in this village because we have received a warm welcome and we thank God for that.”
The Al Halak family was living in rural Homs in Talkalakh, just north of the border with Lebanon, where Zak helped run his father’s garage and car washing business, while Ghaliya dedicated her life to raising their daughter and household chores.
But in March 2011, the Syrian Army started opening fire to disperse crowds of peaceful protesters, which sparked armed rebel groups to form in the city.
The army besieged the area with tanks before unleashing mortars and shells and conducting large-scale house raids.
The family could not find a safe road to leave so were forced to barricade themselves at home for more than a week, before the Syrian Army drove out the rebels and took control of the city using militia, which spread more fear and chaos.
“The shelling started in our town and it was like rain on us every day. They even bombed the staircase in our home,” added Zak. “It was unsafe and we couldn’t even go out of our house because we didn’t know if anyone was going to shoot at us at any time.”
Looters destroyed the family’s business, so Zak had to travel back and forth to Lebanon every day to work in an aluminium business to support his family.
In early 2012, the insurgents infiltrated Talkalakh again, and it was not long before the Army targeted the area with more shells and bombs.
Strict new border controls meant Zak was stripped of his livelihood as he could no longer cross into Lebanon for work.
Then when Zak’s brother deserted the Syrian Police after his surperiors threatened him for refusing to open fire on demonstrators, Zak, his parents and siblings feared persecution and fled to Lebanon for their own safety.
But Zak had to wait nearly two months to be reunited with Ghaliya, who had to pay smugglers £45 to bring their daughter Amneh across the border hidden in a suitcase.
They spent four years in Lebanon during which they were harrassed by the Lebanese military with Zak even arrested twice – once while they were on their way to the hospital as Ghaliya was in labour with Zinnedine.
Zak said: “Life in Lebanon was very difficult. Despite the fact we entered the country legally they didn’t allow us to bring young children, so we ended up paying someone to smuggle our own daughter in a suitcase.
“There was no work and life was so expensive and so difficult. As Syrian people we were stopped by the Lebanese army all the time. I was stopped at one of the checkpoints when my wife was in labour. She was pregnant with my youngest, and I was taken to prison for three days and didn’t even attend the birth of my third child. That was very difficult.”
Although the family has lost their home, their business, family, friends and their belongings, they remain positive about the future and are taking English lessons to help them settle in Essex.
“Life is completely different here as I’ve got my whole family back in Syria, but here I don’t have anyone,” said Ghaliya. “But we are so grateful to be here in Essex where we feel safe and welcome.
“In Syria before the war, life was so good. We were quite well off, we had our own house and life was great.
“The war was very difficult. In the beginning we didn’t want to leave our home and we tried to stay as long as we could, but the shelling intensified and we couldn’t stay any longer.
“Life is a bit difficult here, but this is only the beginning and we will get used to the UK. We are very grateful to the government and councils and the people who have welcomed us here in the kindest way.”
Zak added: “Like all the other Syrian refugees here, we are hardworking people and are very grateful for all the help and support that we are receiving at the time being.
“But we will take this only until we find our feet and then we will be working, integrating in society and giving as much as getting.
“I hope this happens quickly, it’s just a matter of time because we need to learn the language, but then we will be very active in the society.”
Cllr David Finch, Leader of Essex County Council, added: “The success of our SVPR programme is a fantastic example of partnership working at its best. Indeed it was one of the reasons Essex County Council received an excellent rating in a Local Government Association inspection last year – one of only two councils in the country to receive the highest score.
“The welcome the Al Halak family has received in Brightlingsea is heart-warming and testament to the people of Essex. We will continue to work with partners and communities to promote tolerance, dialogue and understanding of different faiths.”
Zak and his family would like the press to offer their special thanks to Migrant Help, Refugee Action and the Brightlingsea Refugee Support Network.