Omar Alhallaq is one of the first babies born in the UK to Syrian refugees.
In many respects Omar Alhallaq is just like other newborn babies, with his wide, curious eyes and his habit of keeping his weary parents up through the night.
But his life also carries an extraordinary message of hope: he is among the first children to be born to a Syrian refugee family since the UK started rehoming people from the war-torn country.
“My future is in Scotland, not in Syria. I hope Omar can get a good education and a new life, with new people”
Abdulrazaq Alhallaq Born just over three weeks ago, Omar is the son of Abdulrazaq Alhallaq and his wife Heba.
Having fled their home in Damascus in 2013, the couple arrived in Scotland in June with Abdulrazaq’s parents Zuhair and Jumana and his two younger brothers, Ali and Hamed.
Our future is in Scotland, not in Syria. I hope Omar can get a good education and a new life, with new people.Zuhair Alhallaq
In an exclusive interview with i from their new home in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, the family described their joy at the birth of Omar and their hopes of giving him a new life in Scotland as they settle down again after three years of fear and uncertainty.
While they were living in the Syrian capital, Zuhair, 51, Abdulrazaq, 27, and Ali, 22, worked as tailors.
Speaking through an interpreter, they recall travelling across the city on their way to work, passing through checkpoints where they would regularly see “snipers, bullets flying and bombs”.
“Many times I would finish my job and be on my way back to our house and I would see people being killed,” says Abdulrazaq, who adds that he no longer watches the news because he finds it too distressing.
“It was very bad.”
The effects of war
“When the war started we didn’t expect that we would have to leave Syria, but since then everything has changed,” adds his father Zuhair.
“Bombs started killing people and we started to see the effects of war, like there being no work, no money to get food, no electricity and no water.
“Trouble reached the area in Damascus where we lived so we moved to another part of the city, but it got worse and worse so we decided to leave.”
The family escaped Syria and travelled to Istanbul, where they stayed until being given the chance to move to the UK as part of the Government’s Syrian Resettlement Programme (SRP).
They were sent to North Lanarkshire, where the local council has to date provided accommodation for 79 people as part of the Scottish Government’s commitment of resettling 2,000 refugees from the conflict over the next five years.
“I was very surprised to see seven people coming to meet us at the airplane, with smiles and saying ‘Welcome to Scotland’.
It was a really good impression” Jumana, Abdulrazaq’s mother Jumana, 42, had dreamed about moving to Scotland while they were living in Turkey. The family were initially nervous about how people would react to their arrival and were amazed by the warm reception they received after touching down at Glasgow airport.
“I was very surprised to see seven people coming to meet us at the airplane, with smiles and saying ‘Welcome to Scotland’. It was a really good impression,” she says. “If we ask anyone about something, we are always given help.”
Abdulrazaq, who lives with his wife and son in a flat ten minutes’ away from his parents, says he was worried that most Scots would be suspicious of why they were there.
Omar with his father Abdulrazaq and his grandfather, Zuhair.
The family say they would like to settle in Scotland (Photo: Martin Hunter) “We thought people wouldn’t like us, that we were just coming here because of the UN. But when we arrived and saw the whole picture, we saw that everybody was helpful and welcoming and happy to deal with us. They all seem to want to get us a good future,” he adds.
“After we arrived, we had three neighbours who came round straight away and began talking to us. They were very nice, saying were we welcome in Bellshill. But I found that the language was a barrier.”
Learning English is a priority for the family. When they first arrived in Scotland, council workers relied on special interpreting phones which could translate English phrases into Arabic and vice versa.
Now they can get by without them, as the whole family has been attending lessons at a local community centre three times a week.
“It’s going well,” says Zuhair. “It’s taken me a while and isn’t quick, but I’ve already found there’s a big difference between what I was like when I arrived and now.”
The family has also grown very close to the Arabic interpreter provided by the council – so close that she acted as Heba’s birthing partner when Omar was born at nearby Wishaw General Hospital three weeks ago.
Hopes for Omar
Heba did not wish to be interviewed, but her husband Abdulrazaq says the birth of his son has made him focus on the rest of his life, which he believes will be in the UK.
“My future is in Scotland, not in Syria. I hope Omar can get a good education and a new life, with new people,” he says.
For the council, preparing for the arrival of each set of refugees is a complex process.
As well as organising the basics of accommodation, they also need to be aware of their medical histories.
One Syrian family now living in Motherwell had to be met at the airport by medical staff and taken straight to Monklands Hospital, because one of them required urgent dialysis.
Some of the Syrian men currently living in the area have also been subjected to horrific torture and abuse in the past, so are being given counselling for trauma.
Cultural sensitivity is paramount: when police first went to the men’s houses to introduce themselves, they were careful not to wear their uniforms.
“It’s been very much a team effort with representatives from Police Scotland, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and NHS Lanarkshire all working together to ensure people could settle in as smoothly as possible,” says Councillor Pat O’Rourke, who chairs North Lanarkshire’s working group on the SRP.
“Local charities and faith groups have also played an invaluable part…We are proud of what has been achieved and would call on other local authorities throughout the UK to follow our lead in supporting people who are desperately in need of help.”
The family have already started to make themselves at home in Scotland, visiting Edinburgh on a sightseeing trip and travelling into Glasgow to seek out shops selling halal produce with the help of social workers.
Zuhair says they would like to stay in the UK for “a long time”.
Asked if they have a message for the people of Scotland, his son Abdulrazaq replies: “We want to say thank you, thank you so much for everything. For the help, for the people who have been kind, because we didn’t see this happen in any other country. You have given us an opportunity to start our lives again, from the beginning.”
This story was originally published on our sister site iNews.