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'I owe it to my baby - to raise him away from war and insecurity': Refugee Week 2024

Dr Aqeel Abdulla

Deputy Director of King's Sanctuary Programme

17 June 2024

As part of Refugee Week, we’re talking to members of the King’s community who have been affected by displacement. Dr Aqeel Abdulla, Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities and Deputy Director of the King’s Sanctuary Programme talks to us about what it means to be unable to return to his home in Syria, 15 years after leaving.

Dr Aqeel Abdulla
Dr Aqeel Abdulla

When did you move to the UK?

I came to the UK in 2009 from Syria on a scholarship for a Master's and then PhD in Drama at the University of Exeter. In 2011, when I was still in my first year of PhD, civil war broke out in Syria.

In 2012 I visited home for one last time, and I haven't been back since. The scholarship from my university back home in Syria dictated that I should go back and work double the number of years I was sponsored as a lecturer in my alma mater, but unfortunately the war escalated significantly by the time I finished my PhD in 2016, and I had become a father back then, so I decided not to take my family back to a war zone, and we sought asylum in the UK.

Wadi Kandeel
Image: A picture taken by Dr Abdulla's wife of Wadi Kandeel beach in Latakia, Syria.

Where did you live in Syria? What was home like?

I come from a Syrian city called Latakia, which is a typical Mediterranean city with its beautiful expansive beaches, hot and humid weather during spring, summer and early autumn, densely populated, surrounded by beautiful green countryside, mostly planted with olive and orange trees, vines, and cacti.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Latakia, apart from the sea, is that you can go from the beach to a high mountain top (over 1000 meters high) in less than an hour by car. Socially speaking, just like most other Mediterranean cities, the real entertainment is on the streets and on the balconies. Latakians are such sociable people who are eager to have fun and enjoy good times with neighbours and friends. Before the war the population of the city was 400,000 people and that quadrupled to 1.6 million at the height of the war in 2015.

What is worth mentioning is that the city of Latakia had received as many refugees as the entire continent of Europe by 2015 - 1.2 million - which puts things in perspective when we think about the real impact of war on populations, on top of death and destruction. Luckily, some who escaped into Latakia have now managed to return, especially since the fighting stopped in Aleppo - Syria's biggest city.

What did you see when you went back in 2012?

My last visit to Syria in 2012 was weird because the war had been happening for a year and people around me were very used to things that were completely new and alien to me. For example, when I suggested going for a walk on a promenade in Latakia that I used to go to almost every day before, and everyone looked at me like I was insane or something because apparently that was one of the hot spots of tension in Latakia. I was almost going to defy this concept and go on my own but my late mother knew of my plans and made me promise not to do it.

On the positive side though, reconnecting with friends who, by then, hadn't left the country yet was priceless, and the Mediterranean and the mountains were as beautiful as ever.


When was the moment you knew you wouldn’t return to Syria?

I was lucky to be here in the UK before the war started. I took the decision to apply for asylum and abandon my plans to go back home when I finished my PhD. I was playing with my first born, who was then a baby, at the beach in Spain in 2017 and it suddenly occurred to my wife and I that we were having fun in the same sea that swallowed thousands of fellow Syrians, and thousands more from across Asia and Africa who were simply trying to find safety for themselves and their family members. Feeling guilty when having fun is a recurrent theme for most refugees, it comes and goes in different intensities, but it's always there! 

As eager as I was to go back home as soon as I finish my PhD, no matter the dangers, I owe it to my baby to raise him away from war and insecurity. He shouldn't pay for my reminiscing over a life that I lost and won't get back - even if I do go back home. Not least because [at the same time] I had lost my mum and lots of places that I reminisced about are no longer there, and most of the people who made my memories of Syria what they were, were either killed or have migrated during the war.– Dr Aqeel Abdulla

How do you manage to stay connected with home?

I stay connected with my family and friends through online chats, although it's not ideal as they always worry someone might be listening- because of the nature of the police-state in which they live. On a more personal level, music is the biggest connection to home in my diaspora, especially at the start of the day as it gives me a dose of normality and inner peace. I have also constantly found ways to do research in Syria through collaborators and research assistants. So far, I have run two research projects there in the last three years, one on the role of intangible cultural heritage and people's participation in it in preserving a sense of identity and active engagement in community for ordinary people. The second project (ongoing) is on the intersection of culture, religion and mental health, particularly focusing on the role of participatory arts.

Do you think most people understand what it means to be a forcibly displaced person?

I believe it is impossible for anyone to really understand what displacement really means unless they've experienced it. I'm saying this from experience because as a Syrian, I have had close relationships and friendships with lots of Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese friends who had to flee wars in their own countries into Syria before Syria's civil war. I used to read a lot about the wars in those countries, but still none of that intellectual knowledge nor the close connection to many who have experienced losing home prepared me to the feeling I've experienced when I finally realised that the visit in May 2012 was the last time I'd see home. 12 years and still counting.

As always, arts come as close as possible to depicting deeply held human emotions, and the closest anyone has come to depicting the feeling of being a refugee is the poem Home by Warsan Shire. Be warned before you listen to this poem though, if you have any experience of asylum or war, this will be hard to stomach! 

Earlier in 2024, you took on the role of Deputy Director of the Sanctuary Programme here at King’s – what made you want to get involved in the programme?

As a former refugee, as someone who has lost his native home, and especially as one who was lucky enough not to have to escape war but left just before it started, I always feel a sense of duty towards fellow refugees and asylum seekers.– Dr Aqeel Abdulla

I feel I must do all I can to raise awareness about these issues, and support students and academics who experience it, as much as I can. That is why I joined King’s Sanctuary Programme in January, and hopefully I will help it grow and gain the status of University of Sanctuary – and we can continue using our expertise and resources to support even more people affected by wars and forced migration around the war.

King’s Sanctuary Programme

King’s Sanctuary Programme was formed in 2015 in response to the global issue of forced displacement. King’s has harnessed its expertise in education and remote learning, world-class research and existing partnerships to initiate and lead on projects that create positive opportunities for forcibly displaced people. At its heart, the Sanctuary Programme represents King’s commitment to serving society. More information about the programme can be found on the King’s Sanctuary pages.

In this story

Aqeel Abdulla

Aqeel Abdulla

Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries

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