Tens of thousands of people arrive at London Heathrow every day. Recently the Channel 4 documentary, Arrivals, told the story of Khaled, a Syrian refugee who met his son at the airport after a year apart. The British Red Cross helped to reunite father and son in emotional scenes. This is their story.
No father should be forced to spend one year away from their young child. But Khaled had to. It’s just another life-changing consequence of the conflict in Syria.
On the journey home from Lebanon, where he worked as a plasterer, Khaled was arrested. When the 31-year-old was released, he discovered his wife was missing. To this day he has not been able to find her.
“I don’t know where she is,” said Khaled. “She was in a neighbouring village but it was taken over. My son sometimes asks me if I have seen his mother, I say: ‘No I haven’t seen her’. And he says: ‘I have [gesturing to his head] but she isn’t here anymore.’”
After that, Khaled decided his family could not stay in Syria anymore.
Five hours before the light
Khaled, along with his mother and baby son Ali, fled to Lebanon. But things did not improve for the family, so Khaled decided to try for Europe. “My mother would not let me take Ali with me. She said it was no journey for a baby,” recalled Khaled.
“I didn’t care where I was going. I said to the smugglers: ‘Just get me a boat to anywhere.’
“It was easy to find smugglers. They took us to a boat that was clearly damaged. We still got in. There were 55 of us on a boat that should only have held 15. I was sat next to a woman who was 70, in her arms was a two-month-old baby.
“Then the boat sank. We tried to get the water out but we couldn’t.
“I swam for five hours before I saw the lights of the rescue boat. I thought of my son and was so glad I had not brought him with me.
“I thought: ‘This is it, I’m going to die’. If my son was there he would die too. I thought of the lady and the baby and felt helpless.”
24 hours in a container
Khaled travelled to France from Greece, paying smugglers along the way. He made it to Calais and saw the ‘Jungle’ camp.
“I could not go there. I could not live like that. I had heard there were many Syrians there but I was scared,” he said.
The next morning he walked down to the port. He was immediately approached by smugglers who said they could get him to England.
“I know that people treat refugees very well in the UK, they are nice people and welcoming. So I wanted to come here. I also know some English,” said Khaled.
Khaled got into a container with no food or water. For the next 24 hours he sat in darkness, not sure if he would come out alive.
All of a sudden he heard voices, the doors opened and there stood the police. They spoke in English.
“They saw me and they could see I was not well. I was dehydrated, hungry and tried,” said Khaled.
“They asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said: ‘No, I want to come with you.’ I was desperate to register and get my paper work ready.”
Reunited at last
The authorities registered Khaled and he got his residency, pending his asylum application. He then moved to London and found the British Red Cross.
He recalled: “I found them by coincidence really, but ever since my life has changed. They have helped me so much I cannot thank them enough.”
All Khaled could think about was his little boy, three-year-old Ali. That’s when we told him they could get help through our family reunion programme.
It was another three months before Khaled was finally reunited with his son in July last year, almost a year to the day since they had last seen each other.
They are just two of the 944 Syrians the British Red Cross reunited in 2016. In total, we helped over 2,000 people travel to the UK to be reunited with their families.
“It is all thanks to the Red Cross that I have been reunited with my son,” said Khaled. “They helped me through every stage and explained to me exactly what I had to do.
“I felt huge happiness when I saw Ali at the airport. It is something I will remember forever. I said: ‘I want to kiss you’. He said: ‘Daddy I’m scared’.
“I told him ‘don’t be scared, you are safe here’. I held him in my arms and kissed him.”
The Red Cross has also been helping Khaled find a job. He is currently doing some courses through the job centre that will help him work as an electrician in the UK.