A man whose family escaped war-torn Syria has spoken of his “joyful” new life in the north-east – and his hope he can soon become a lecturer.
Omar Al Hmdan was living with his wife Manar in the city of Daraa in 2012 when a daily bombing campaign carried out by the Syrian regime put their lives at risk.
The couple fled to Jordan before the UK Government chose them for its resettlement programme and they moved to Scotland in March 2016.
More than three years on, Omar is training to become a university lecturer – and has thanked staff from Aberdeen JobCentre and others who have helped transform his life.
“Had we stayed in Syria, who knows if we would even be alive now? We have been given a second chance and I am optimistic about the future,” said Omar, 33.
He added: “The help we have had from everyone has been overwhelming. We feel part of Aberdeen.”
Omar and his wife were living in Daraa – 60 miles south of the Syrian capital Damascus – when a civil war broke out and daily regime bombing campaigns began in their village.
His uncle died in one air raid and conditions were difficult.
Omar said: “There was a lot of bombing and many things were horrible. There was no electric, water, phone line or internet – not anything, so we had to leave Daraa.
“We left Daraa in 2012 and went to Suwayda (a city 35 miles to the east). It was safe at the time, but then the same situation developed.”
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Things became more desperate, particularly when Manar gave birth to their son Masaab.
Omar said: “Masaab was just a baby then and needed milk and we couldn’t get it as things were so desperate, so we fled to Jordan.”
While Jordan was free from war, Omar could not get a work visa.
He said: “It was a horrible situation because, if someone worked without permission and the Jordanian police caught them, they would have returned them to Syria, which would have been dangerous.
“They just told us to stay in our tent within a camp.”
After moving back to Suwayda, Omar and his family went to Beirut in Lebanon, where they encountered further problems.
“In Lebanon, people would say ‘those people are Syrian’ and discriminate against you,” said Omar.
He added: “If police boarded a bus, they would seek out the Syrian passengers for checks, though we never did anything wrong. We didn’t have rights.”
The family was chosen for the UK Government’s Syrian refugee resettlement programme and flew to Scotland.
According to Aberdeen City Council, 25 Syrian families have moved to the city under the programme. Aberdeenshire Council said 55 have moved there and three more are to arrive before December.
Omar said he was apprehensive about what to expect as others had discouraged him from starting a new life in the UK.
He added: “Some people said ‘don’t travel to the UK because the language problem would be hard.’
“But I heard about the UK justice system and the free press and was reassured.
“When I arrived at the airport, many people were waiting to receive us and people were carrying our bags to the bus. I said to my wife ‘Are we dreaming?’ People here are kind. It is a joyful life we have now.”
After arriving in Aberdeen, Omar and his family were given a home and JobCentre staff helped him apply for benefits.
He has Jobseekers’ Allowance and child maintenance.
Aberdeen City Council assigned a volunteer to the family who helped them learn English.
That was Maria Fowler, 27, of Cults – whose influence on the family was so strong they named their daughter, Mayra, now two, after her.
In the last three years, the JobCentre has been helping Omar get the skills for his dream job.
He said: “A few years ago I had an accident which caused me problems with my knee, which means I can’t do physical labour. My dream job would be to be an Arabic teacher in a university.
Before that, I need to study a higher standard, of course, as I am only intermediate now.”
While Omar gets that qualification he plans to get a data entry job and, with the help of the JobCentre, has already completed three programmes which equip people for employment.
“I’ve learned better English and they have been teaching me Microsoft Excel skills so I can get a job in data entry.”
He added: “Being in Scotland is great. My son has a Scottish accent and has grown up with friends from here, so he is very comfortable.
“I have been given many opportunities in the UK and have been given a lot of support by neighbours.
“If you go to the shop in Scotland a person will hold the door for you and will smile. It is a very welcoming feeling.
“When you compare Syria to Scotland – Syria is a disaster. You can’t compare the two. Some parts of Syria have no schools, hospitals, employment or safety. Scotland has all of these things.
“You can’t forget your roots. I have many roots in Syria – my father, my mother, my brothers.
“Hopefully, one day I will go back but at the moment there is no solution to the ongoing problems there.”
Omar said he has been determined to repay people for their help by volunteering.
He gives up three days a week teaching Arabic to children at Aberdeen Mosque and Islamic Centre in Spital, Old Aberdeen and the Masjid Alhikmah and Community Centre on Nelson Street, Aberdeen.
The dad-of-two is also an imam for Inverurie.
He said: “We didn’t have a place to pray in Inverurie but Inverurie West Parish Church provided one and now we pray there. It is such kindness.”
Aberdeen Jobcentre Plus work coach team leader Ruth Rothnie said: “The centre provides help to a wide range of people with a wide range of needs and Omar is another example of that.
“It is heartwarming to hear his story and that he is appreciative of the support his family has received.
“We will continue to provide that support through his work coach.”