Global Development Institute Blog

Luis Eduardo Pérez Murcia PhD researcher, Global Development Institute

The ongoing war in Syria has left millions of people in conditions of displacement either within or across national borders. Not all Syrian asylum seekers and refugees fled following direct threats and violence. As the experience of Noor illustrates, some left their country to pursue their professional and academic careers but then, because of dynamics of war, cannot not return.

Hand painted tile stating "Pray for Syria".

Hand painted tile stating “Pray for Syria”.

This is the story of Noor, an international student who could not return to Syria because of the civil war. She is now hoping to be granted refugee status in the UK.

Noor, which in Arabic means ‘light’, came to England as an international student in 2014. By the time she arrived, the conflict in her country was being represented internationally as the ‘Syrian crises’. Coming to England has for long been an aspiration for Noor. She spent many years learning English and gaining the academic qualifications necessary to be accepted at a British university. However, she recalls that when she was accepted by The University of Manchester she was concerned about whether or not she would be able to obtain a visa, having heard that visas for Syrians, even those who are sponsored students, were being rejected. Everything worked out fine, however and Noor was able to come to England and pursue her dream of studying at a British University.

By 2015, the conflict in Syria had worsened and was no longer being described by the international media as a ‘Syrian crises’ but was being referred to as the ‘Syrian war’. Opportunities for Syrians to obtain visas were limited and millions were trapped within Syria or were able to flee to neighbouring countries. And others made the hazardous journey and tried to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite the escalation of the conflict, as soon Noor finished her studies she returned ‘home’ as planned. However, after only one day home in Damascus it became clear to her that what had initially been referred by international media to as an ‘uprising’ and later as a ‘crisis’ was indeed a ‘war’. Noor realised that ‘home’ was no longer a safe place in which she could pursue her dreams and achieve her aspirations. When Noor returned to England to attend her graduation ceremony it crossed her mind that England, a place in which she had had such a wonderful and productive time, could become her next home.

Noor applied for refugee status and immediately shifted from being an international student to being an asylum seeker. While waiting for the Home Office decision, and despite having the financial support of her family in Syria, Noor has been moving from one place to the other in order to keep her expenses down.

Noor’s story tells us something about what and where home is and what it means. Noor herself says that ‘home’ is a tricky concept and one that is hard to define. Ultimately she says, home is neither my country nor the physical house I was living in Damascus. Home to me is more a feeling”. Having spent a significant part of her life living in other countries including France, Saudi Arab, Lebanon and England, Noor says, “I see life as a train station. I am always ready to move”. She experiences home as a mobile space. “I feel at home in a place I like. I think family is central for my understanding of home but home is also the place you feel you can contribute the most. I am volunteering as a research assistant and bringing support to refugees in the UK, so I think England could now be my home”. She stresses that she is an independent woman able to work and contribute to this society as do other refugees. She added “If I am granted permission to stay, I will work, I will pay taxes and I will do my best to contribute to this society”.

However, waiting for the Home Office concerning her status in the UK is not free of tension and she is anxious about the future. Noor told me “I feel trapped in limbo. I am not saying I feel in limbo living in England. I can make this place my home. What I mean is that I feel trapped in limbo with my Syrian passport. I cannot work or move anywhere. [] In order to feel at home I need papers. I need the permission to stay”.

Noor’s emphasis on the need of ‘papers’ to feel at home in England can be better understood if we consider the role of the symbolic value of material things in the process of home-making. I asked Noor if she had brought anything with her to England that reminded of her home in Damascus. In response, she recounted a little story. When she had left her home in Damascus to get a job in a neighbouring country, her mother had asked her if she wanted to take something with her to remind her of her family at home. Noor had looked at her belongings and chose an envelope. This is the same envelope Noor brought to England. It contains her academic diplomas, language test results, letters of reference and her passport. When asked why she chose the envelope she simply replied “that is what I am. Thus, that is what I need to make a home for myself in this country”.

Noor’s experience is only one of millions of Syrians who have fled conflict or who cannot return to their country because of the escalation of war. Having to make a new home away is an experience shared by many of the over 60 million people currently living in conditions of displacement across the world.

Today, in celebrating the Refugee Day, the narrative of Noor calls our attention that refugees, as Maja Korac stresses, are ordinary human beings living in extraordinary circumstances. They are just people like us trying to find a safe place to live in the world.