North West Wales

Kobane to Colwyn Bay: How one family escaped war in Syria

Omer and Shireen Muslem

In the spring of 2014, newlyweds Omer and Shireen Muslem were starting a new life together in their hometown of Kobane, northern Syria.

Mr Muslem was a recent graduate in English literature; his wife was still studying.

But four months after their wedding, their lives were shattered when so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters overran their city, forcing almost all of its civilians to flee into Turkey.

Now the couple and their 20-month old son Mirwan live more than 2,300 miles (3,700km) away in Colwyn Bay, Conwy county.

After more than two years in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, they are relieved to finally have a safe, long-term home.

"When IS attacked in 2014, everything was destroyed," Mr Muslem, 29, said.

"Everyone left. We moved to Turkey and then to Iraq but some people returned to the city. Then IS attacked another time and we lost about 500 people. They were all killed.

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Media captionFrom Syria to the Welsh seaside

"Every family in Syria has lost one person in the family. I lost my brother two years ago and we don't know if he is alive or dead. Some people have lost all their family."

"It was so hard," Mrs Muslem, 28, added. "We had to leave our town because of the war and all the destruction. We were afraid for our lives and we had to go. It was a bad situation."

"Here, I feel very happy and settled, the people are very kind and when we need anything, they help us."

Until the family arrived in north Wales, Mirwan had lived all his young life in the Gawilan refugee camp in northern Iraq.

"I delivered him in the camp," Mrs Muslem said. "It was difficult because the weather is very hot and it was summer when I had him. I was afraid I'd lose him.

"There is only a small medical surgery at the camp and most of the time there is no medicine and the service is very simple."

Image copyright Omer Muslem
Image caption The couple spent more than two years in Gawilan refugee camp in northern Iraq

"I saw many, many bad situations when we first left Syria," Mr Muslem added. "We didn't want to live in a tent but where would we go? There was no choice for us.

"We couldn't go to rent a house in another city so we stayed in the camp and lived in a tent."

Since Kurdish forces drove IS out of Kobane in June 2015, some people have returned to the city - among them, Mrs Muslem's two sisters.

"They moved back after the fighting ended," she said. "I worry about them so much and want them to come and live in the UK too but it's very difficult."

Mr Muslem also has family in Kobane.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Kobane in January 2015, after the first IS attack
Image caption Much of city was razed to the ground by the fighting

"Their life is OK now but it's temporary," he said. "Maybe war will come again, we don't know what's going to happen in Syria."

By the end of February 2017, at least 397 refugees had been resettled in Wales under the UK government's Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

The family is the first to be placed in Conwy.

"I didn't know where I was going," Mr Muslem said. "I was just told in Iraq, you will go to Manchester airport and you will live in Conwy.

"When we arrived, we saw it was a good town. The weather is good and it's very nice for tourism. There are nice places like Llandudno and Rhyl and Bangor - I've visited all of these cities."

Life was lonely at first but after three months, the family is starting to make new friends.

Image copyright Omer Muslem
Image caption Mr Muslem wants his son to learn Welsh as well as English, Kurdish and Arabic

"When I arrived here, I didn't know anyone," he added. "I had one friend but the council helped me meet people.

"I know some more people now - I hope to meet many more but I know I have some friends.

"For me it's not difficult but for other people it could be because they don't know the language and if they can't speak the language, they can't meet people."

Mr Muslem is perfecting his English at a college course in Bangor and wants to qualify as a teacher.

"If I go back to Syria after five years, I will help my own people in the university or in high school," he said.

For now though, the family is staying put in Wales to rebuild the burgeoning life that was wrecked nearly three years ago by war.

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