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Muzoon Almellehan: the Syrian teenager who is the talk of the Tyne

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Helen Pidd - Daily Telegraph

The 17-year-old student and her family fled the war and refugee camps to settle in Newcastle last year – and she has already been busy campaigning for girls’ education. She talks about meeting Malala, speaking Geordie and why she wants to go back to Syria one day
 

The 17-year-old student and her family fled the war and refugee camps to settle in Newcastle last year – and she has already been busy campaigning for girls’ education. She talks about meeting Malala, speaking Geordie and why she wants to go back to Syria one day
 

It was five days after the body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey that David Cameron was finally jolted into action. In a speech to the House of Commons on 7 September, the prime minister pledged that Britain would resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the rest of this parliament. “In doing so,” he told MPs, “we will continue to show the world that this is a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need.”

More than 2,000 miles away, in dusty Jordan, 17-year-old Muzoon Almellehan was oblivious to Cameron’s outbreak of mercy among the leather banquettes of the Westminster debating chamber. In a miserable tent far away from her friends, she was studying furiously for national exams that never seemed quite within her grasp. Not because she wasn’t smart enough: she can outwit most undergraduates. But because every time she felt ready to take the tests, her family had to move again.

The first move, back in February 2013, was from their home in the oft-besieged city of Daraa in southwest Syria. They crossed the border into Jordan in the middle of the night and settled in Zaatari, one of the world’s biggest refugee camps. She had just got sorted in a school there when the family was forced to move again, to Azraq, an unpopular camp built in the middle of nowhere to accommodate 100,000 but housing a third of that number when officials from the UN Refugee Agency came to talk to the AlmellehansThe family members were asked if they fancied a new life in Canada. Too far, said Muzoon’s father, 45-year-old Rakan, a teacher. How about Sweden? But my children don’t speak Swedish, he said. Little did he know that his eldest daughter, the ever-resourceful Muzoon, was already in negotiations to relocate to Britain, home of Shakespeare, whose Measure for Measure she had been studying in English. An insatiable reader, she was ordered to bring only essentials when the family fled their hometown. When they eventually unpacked, Rakan realised why Muzoon’s bag was so heavy: she had filled it with dozens of books.

Two-and-a-half months after Cameron’s speech, the Almellehans found themselves on a plane bound for Newcastle. They knew nothing about the city that was to become their new home, barring what Muzoon had managed to find out on the internet about its industrial heritage. Stepping off the plane, she learned something else: that she was going to need more jumpers. “It was so cold!” she says, talking two months after her arrival on Tyneside. “In Jordan it was so hot that I would think about how nice it would be to be cool, but in Newcastle it was at the other extreme.”

The family were one of nine welcomed by Newcastle city council officials at the airport as part of the first tranche of 1,000 Syrians resettled nationwide before Christmas. Everything had been arranged so that they could settle in with minimum fuss. Whereas their compatriots who arrived in the back of lorries and stowed away on ferries have to wait months while their asylum claims were processed before joining the queue for social housing, Muzoon and her family were given refugee status on arrival, with five-year visas. This included a home and fast-track registration with the job centre and a GP. Muzoon and her three siblings were also found places at a local high school.

“Most of the things that we need were in the house when we arrived,” says Muzoon. “The government knows we have been through war and tough stuff, so they are sort of reimbursing us for what we have lost.” The fridge was stocked, the cupboards filled with tea, coffee, sugar and other essentials.
Within a few weeks of their arrival, the younger children, boys of 11 and 16 and a 14-year-old girl, were kitted out with school uniforms, and Muzoon was ready to go to the sixth form in her civvies at a big local comprehensive. Everything was new: the fact they had to cart their school books around in their backpacks, the constant switching of classrooms and teachers, not to mention the mystery items available at the school canteen (“I am sticking to fruits and vegetables for now,” says Muzoon).

The English her classmates spoke was nothing like what she had learned back in Syria or in the refugee camps. “Everyone speaks so quickly, so I can’t understand everything,” she says, via an Arabic translator. She noticed strange pronunciations: “They say ‘hoose’ instead of ‘house’ and ‘booook’ instead of ‘book’.” She takes Esol (English as a second language) lessons as well as A-level classes in maths and media studies, and is hoping to take GCSE Arabic.

Muzoon is one of nine Syrian refugee children now studying at Kenton School, a large academy in north-west Newcastle, which has 1,900 students. At the start of the autumn term the headteacher, Sarah Holmes-Carne, had asked the council to place Syrians with her, after following the worsening refugee crisis through the summer holiday. Another teacher, Jess Griffiths, had produced a series of assemblies with sixth formers on the truth about refugees, aiming to “dispel the myths being spread on social media”, says Holmes-Carne. A few months later, the council came back to her and asked if she was serious. Absolutely, she said.

The multicultural school has the motto “different but all equal” and she felt the students would gain from the experience of meeting Muzoon and the other Syrians. With more than 100 other nationalities already enrolled, including other girls in headscarves, Muzoon wouldn’t stand out too much in her tightly wrapped hijab. There were already other Arab pupils who could help them settle in too. “We are really committed to this. It’s about supporting the Syrians but also doing a lot more for our community,” said the head. “We are very accepting of people who are a little bit different.”

Newcastle city council has asked the Guardian not to reveal exactly where the Almellehans are living, in the wake of trolling on social media about the Syrians being prioritised over needy Britons. But Nick Forbes, the council leader, insists that residents overwhelmingly wanted to help. “There was a huge outcry following the publicity of Alan Kurdi’s death,” he says. “My office started to get calls demanding that we help. It became quickly obvious that there was a groundswell of support, with individuals making offers of help that needed to be matched with charities on the ground.”

t was five days after the body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey that David Cameron was finally jolted into action. In a speech to the House of Commons on 7 September, the prime minister pledged that Britain would resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the rest of this parliament. “In doing so,” he told MPs, “we will continue to show the world that this is a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need."

More than 2,000 miles away, in dusty Jordan, 17-year-old Muzoon Almellehan was oblivious to Cameron’s outbreak of mercy among the leather banquettes of the Westminster debating chamber. In a miserable tent far away from her friends, she was studying furiously for national exams that never seemed quite within her grasp. Not because she wasn’t smart enough: she can outwit most undergraduates. But because every time she felt ready to take the tests, her family had to move again.

The first move, back in February 2013, was from their home in the oft-besieged city of Daraa in southwest Syria. They crossed the border into Jordan in the middle of the night and settled in Zaatari, one of the world’s biggest refugee camps. She had just got sorted in a school there when the family was forced to move again, to Azraq, an unpopular camp built in the middle of nowhere to accommodate 100,000 but housing a third of that number when officials from the UN Refugee Agency came to talk to the Almellehans.

The family members were asked if they fancied a new life in Canada. Too far, said Muzoon’s father, 45-year-old Rakan, a teacher. How about Sweden? But my children don’t speak Swedish, he said. Little did he know that his eldest daughter, the ever-resourceful Muzoon, was already in negotiations to relocate to Britain, home of Shakespeare, whose Measure for Measure she had been studying in English. An insatiable reader, she was ordered to bring only essentials when the family fled their hometown. When they eventually unpacked, Rakan realised why Muzoon’s bag was so heavy: she had filled it with dozens of books.

Two-and-a-half months after Cameron’s speech, the Almellehans found themselves on a plane bound for Newcastle. They knew nothing about the city that was to become their new home, barring what Muzoon had managed to find out on the internet about its industrial heritage. Stepping off the plane,she learned something else: that she was going to need more jumpers. “It was so cold!” she says, talking two months after her arrival on Tyneside. “In Jordan it was so hot that I would think about how nice it would be to be cool, but in Newcastle it was at the other extreme.'

The family were one of nine welcomed by Newcastle city council officials at the airport as part of the first tranche of 1,000 Syrians resettled nationwide before Christmas. Everything had been arranged so that they could settle in with minimum fuss. Whereas their compatriots who arrived in the back of lorries and stowed away on ferries have to wait months while their asylum claims were processed before joining the queue for social housing, Muzoon and her family were given refugee status on arrival, with five-year visas. This included a home and fast-track registration with the job centre and a GP. Muzoon and her three siblings were also found places at a local high school.
 


Helen Pidd, 16/02/2016

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