31 March 2022

Long distance running can be rewarding for so many reasons. We’re proud of all our supporters that embark on the gruelling journey to raise money for us! Next week Helen and Geoff will be running the Brighton Marathon for us, you can donate to their fundraiser on Justgiving
Last year, former Reading STAR President Jake and his brother Sam ran a half marathon every month of the year to raise money for STAR. Below, Jake reflects on why he chose to run and interviews Dr Aqeel Abdulla, a lecturer at King’s College London and a Syrian refugee.

Throughout 2021, my brother Sam and I ran a half marathon every month in aid of Student Action for Refugees. We raised over £1000 and are incredibly grateful to all the support we received from the organisation. Here we wanted to shed light on what pushed us through the gruelling runs and sore muscles. 

The UN estimates that global forced displacement surpassed 84 million by mid-2021, with 68% of refugees originating from just five countries – the Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Behind these statistics, however, are millions of unheard stories. We want to share with you an interview we did with Dr Aqeel Abdulla, lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, who is also a Syrian refugee. Dr Abdulla came to the UK to complete a Master’s and PhD, but when war broke out in Syria he was unable to return. We had this conversation during the middle of our fundraising and it really consolidated  why we were running.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today Dr Abdulla. Do you know many other people have been in similar situations where they might have been in the UK, and not been able to go back?

By the time the war started in Syria, there were 500 people in the same situation as me in the UK, that is 500 people on the same scholarship – from all over Syria. You can add to that, probably a similar number of academics who were studying on their own expense without funding… there were 1000s, counting the families of these students, who already were here. We were planning on going back after finishing studies but couldn’t. 

What do you wish people understood about being a refugee in the UK?

Where do I start? I can talk for hours about this but two things are the most important things. The first one is that the government rhetoric and the media rhetoric is very poisonous and aimed in one direction, which is to portray refugees as people who are just here for the benefits, who are opportunistic people. If people knew anything about the journeys that people go through to be here, and how unbelievably dangerous and how many 1000s of people die, every single year, trying to reach Europe then they wouldn’t make those assumptions about coming here for benefits. 

The other thing [the media does] is to try to propagate this dialogue of “Oh, poor refugees, yes, they have problems in their homelands, but realistically we cannot take everyone, you have to look after your own.” This is the problem – it sounds logical, it sounds reasonable, but it hides the fact that this government and consecutive British governments have caused the majority of the wars or are directly involved and financing these wars causing this refugee crisis in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. If you undo all the damage that the government is doing, then fair enough. After you do that, don’t take a single refugee and we will be very happy. 

“Every refugee is a victim, but focusing on that one-dimensional representation of refugees forgets that a refugee can be literally anyone.”

Another misconception that I’d really like people to challenge is sometimes caused by sympathetic politics, which is to keep talking about the victimhood of refugees. In my case, I am not poor, I am not poorly educated, I’ve been here before the war, I teach at the University of Exeter [At the time of interview, now at King’s College London]. I am a victim because I can’t see my family, I can’t see my friends, I can’t visit my hometown, my mom passed away while I was here and I wasn’t able to say goodbye to her. Every refugee is a victim, but focusing on that one-dimensional representation of refugees forgets that a refugee can be literally anyone. 

So that one dimensional representation is dangerous, even if sympathetic, and many refugees all over the world, enrich the societies that they are in. It’s not helpful to just talk about trauma, trauma, trauma all the time. We need to have balance and nuance.

I was wondering if you have any specific recommendations for how people can actually find out a bit more about what is actually going on, rather than just being a consumer of the news rhetoric?

I would say, people need to seek out information rather than propaganda. Instead of reading an article about refugee issues, read some numbers, find out some numbers… But most importantly, I would say, educate yourselves about what the UK is doing. 

Aside from the intellectual aspect, the most important thing is the personal. When you meet people who are refugees or asylum seekers, don’t bring it up. You have a human being standing in front of you, engage with them as such. The analogy I often say is that if you see someone on the street who is completely bald, clearly because of chemotherapy, you wouldn’t go to that stranger and say “Oh you have cancer, that must be hard. Tell me about how hard it is.” No one in their right mind would ever dream of doing something like that. So why would you do this with other kinds of trauma?

Later on, if your relationship develops and you become friends, and you trust each other, yes of course, ask them. In fact, they would probably bring it up. I would love to talk about my problems with a friend but no chance in hell would I like to talk about it with the taxi driver, for example. If you meet someone from Palestine, Yemen, Syria or Iraq, ask them about the weather in their country, about the food, what kind of music they like, do they like football? 

If people want to learn more about Syrian culture, not just the pictures we see in the news, could you give us maybe three cultural artefacts you love from your country? 

Dabke dance, and obviously Syrian food. What would I choose as the third thing…the Latakia mountains. These are the highlights of Syrian culture for me.

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