Omar was celebrating his 21st birthday when his life changed. A second-year computer science student in his hometown of Homs, Syria, he had a bright future. His parents, a bus driver and a sports team administrator, had good jobs and the family lived a comfortable life, owning two houses in different parts of the city.
An uprising against the government, part of the Arab Spring, had broken out a year earlier, quickly evolving into civil war. For many people, however, life continued as normal. But on the day of his birthday, Omar attended the funeral of a friend who had died at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Within minutes, protests against the government had broken out and the army moved in to curb the uprising.
Omar and a friend were caught up in gunfire and his friend sustained an injury to his arm. He was taken to hospital, while Omar, along with around 70 other young people attending the funeral, was thrown into a windowless prison cell in the country’s notorious Palmyra prison.
His cellmates were taken away for nightly beatings by prison guards – and not all of them returned. Omar himself was badly beaten, his back a lattice of scars.
Sitting in an Edinburgh cafe, Omar, now 24 and granted refugee status in the UK, recalls his parents’ faces when he appeared at their home a month later, half-naked and malnourished.
“They were in a very bad way. They didn’t know what had happened to me,” he says. “Every day, my brother and father went out looking for me and everywhere they went, they saw bodies.”
Omar was lucky. His friend, who had been hurt during the protests, never returned from hospital. “Who dies of an arm wound?” Omar asks. “He disappeared. He was killed.”
Terrified he would end up back in jail, Omar quit his studies and moved to a city in another part of Syria, where he worked at a steel factory.
“I was there for four months and I didn’t see my family,” he says. But while he was away, his parents’ house was destroyed and they were forced to move. His parents were living under a strict curfew, electricity and water cut off for all but three hours a day.
Worried, Omar travelled to Homs to visit his family, but was stopped en route by a soldier who told him that he was wanted by the regime to join the army. “I knew then I had to get out of Syria,” he said.
In the south of Syria, Sam, a young accountant, also had a good life before his opposition to the Assad regime left him forced to flee to Scotland. “I had my own job with enough money to enjoy life, my own car and a house,” he says, the smile replaced with a hint of bitterness. “I had it all.”
But the area of Damascus in which he lived was under government control. Sam was told he had to join the army and kill people opposed to the regime. He refused. “I was stabbed in the street, four times in my back,” he says.
Now, Sam, 27, is living in temporary accommodation in a hostel in Edinburgh. He is learning English, but knows he is unlikely to get a job as an accountant in the near future.
“I want to work,” he says. “My English is not good yet, but I want to find a job.”
His parents and two siblings are still in Syria, but Sam cannot go back in the foreseeable future. “Syria is finished, over,” he says, slamming the table.
His journey from Syria involved walking through ten countries in just five weeks. Two attempts to get to Europe by boat from Turkey failed.
The first saw a rubber dinghy run out of fuel in the middle of the sea. The second boat ran off course. The third was successful. “We were 35 people in a small boat. Sometimes the waves were much bigger than the boat,” he says. “Sometimes people fell in the sea and we would pull them out.”
Omar, too, escaped on a tiny boat, his only belongings tossed into the sea as the waves engulfed the dinghy.
After leaving Syria, he paid smugglers to help him get to Egypt, where he stayed with an uncle temporarily before travelling to Turkey.
From there, he made three attempts to get by boat to Greece, and was rescued twice by the Turkish authorities.
Omar stayed in Greece for ten months, working illegally to survive. He ended up in Manchester last January, where he was granted asylum, and this month moved to Edinburgh where he hopes to recommence his studies. His parents, now living in Egypt, are safe. But their dream is to return home. “The older people all want to go back if Assad’s regime goes,” he says. “They built their lives in Syria, then everything was destroyed in one hour.”
Amer Masri, 34, left Hama, Syria, in 2007 – long before the conflict began. A scientist with a lecturing job at the University of Damascus, he had come to Edinburgh with wife Marwa, 29, to study for a PhD in sheep genetics at Edinburgh University, attracted by the Roslin Institute where Dolly was created. His first son, Taym, six, was born in Scotland and in 2011 the family returned to Syria to visit their child’s grandparents.
But comments made on social media from the safety of his home in Scotland about his opposition to the Assad regime had attracted the attention of the authorities. He was thrown in jail for two months and forced to confess to crimes against the regime. “They used every means possible: psychological and physical torture,” he says. “They said because I had more than one bank card that I must be trying to pay people to stand up against the government.
“They kept up the level of torture until I had to confess to something. They told me if I didn’t confess they would rape my wife and my mother and make my boy an orphan.”
Once released, Masri paid thousands of pounds to an official who agreed to erase his name from a list which would block him from travelling.
Now back in Edinburgh, the couple have a new son, Elias, three. The family have no intention of leaving. “I call them my wee boys because they are Scots,” says Masri. “This country gave me dignity and respect, education and a career.”
But for Omar and Sam, thousands of miles away from their friends and families, nothing will be the same again.
“Before any of this happened, we had normal, good lives,” Omar says. “I had dreams of being a computing engineer, of having my own company. Now all that is gone.
“I am thankful to be in Scotland, appreciative of the people here that they have welcomed me, but we are Syrian. If Assad goes, I want to go back, I want to go home.
“I have been living off an allowance of £35 a week. I have no friends, I live alone, I know no-one in the city.” He pauses. “Because of the things that we have experienced in Syria, we have changed. We cannot plan for the future, or look forward to a normal life, now we can only take one day at a time.”
• Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Struggle to help a tide of desperate humanity
WHEN Gill McArthur arrived at the port at the Greek island of Samos, the sight overwhelmed her.
Refugees, some of them young children, were climbing out of boats, dripping wet, many completely broke – having lost their bank cards and financial paperwork at sea. Some had lost family members on the journey, others were collapsing from exhaustion.
McArthur, a nightclub owner from Edinburgh, volunteers with ReAct, a charity set up in response to the growing refugee crisis around the world.
In the past few months, the organisation, which relies on donations of clothes, toiletries and money from Edinburgh residents, has sent out two volunteer-led convoys to Croatia and one to Samos, as well as multiple lorry loads of donated aid, totalling 160 tonnes.
It has also sent aid and volunteers to the “jungle” refugee camp in Calais, where thousands of displaced people from all around the world have gathered.
“They just don’t understand why Europe is saying it is welcoming refugees and then when they turn up, they have nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep,” she said. “They are sleeping on tarmac in a port.”
She began to hand out aid to refugees, some of whom waited for days at the port to be transferred to elsewhere in Europe.
“It is heartbreaking to go around the beaches seeing people sleeping in the freezing rain,” she says. “You have 40 blankets and there are hundreds of people.
“Children are dying of hypothermia and their parents can do nothing to help them. People were trying to sell their kids to us, they were that desperate. They told us to take them for a better life.”
Locals on the island of Samos have clubbed together to help the refugees, but are struggling with the sheer numbers of migrants.
“There is one Greek woman, who has children of her own and a cleaning job, who is getting up at 5am every day to cook for the refugees and then going down to the port after work to hand out the food,” says McArthur. “Then she goes home and washes up all the pots and starts again the next day. It is amazing what some of the people were doing.”
Keefe McKie, co-founder of ReAct, saw similarly harrowing scenes at Calais’s refugee camp.
“I have been to refugee camps before, but when I saw Calais, I was in shock,” she says. “There was raw sewage flowing down the streets. People there have no quality of life.”
With only basic first aid training, McKie was forced to treat people with injuries from the razor wire surrounding the camp.
HOW TO DONATE
Details of how to donate to Re-Act are available at http://www.re-act.scot/
The charity is seeking financial funding as well as donations of clothes, blankets etc to be sent to refugees arriving in Europe.