After years as migrant and dangerous water crossing, Syrian crossed English Channel to forge life anew

35-year-old refugee managed to find new life in London, but is saddened by Nov. 24 migrant tragedy in English Channel.

After years as migrant and dangerous water crossing, Syrian crossed English Channel to forge life anew

As many as 27 people – including children and a pregnant woman – drowned in the English Channel on Nov. 24 after their inflatable boat took on water and capsized in one of the deadliest migrant drowning incidents in the waters bridging France and Britain.

Fleeing war or poverty, tens of thousands of people in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya have turned toward Europe in recent years, hoping for a better life or just safety.

This year alone, more than 25,000 migrants made the perilous journey from France to the UK through the English Channel, according to the UK Home Office. French authorities have reported nearly twice that number, with 47,000 Channel crossings to the UK, and 7,800 rescues.

The number of crossings through the sea route in unsafe boats is said to have grown since authorities tightened measures for migrants trying to enter the UK through hiding inside trucks.

One of those migrants, a 35-year-old Syrian who asked to be identified as Eiad, took a similar long and dangerous journey from Syria to the UK seven years ago. Hearing the news of the tragedy in the English Channel saddened him, he told Anadolu Agency.

"I feel I'm lucky that I was able to make this journey and arrive safely in England. But I feel very sad for those people who are still trying to get somewhere better to make a better life," said Eiad, who now lives in London.

Perilous journey from boat to borders

Eiad left Syria in October 2012, the day he graduated from Damascus University in dentistry – one of some 6.6 million Syrians who have fled the country since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Turkey alone hosts approximately 3.7 million of these people – more than any other country in the world.

From there, it took Eiad more than two years to finally arrive in the UK, in December 2014. Along the way he lived in five different countries, and took a boat journey where he risked his very life.

He first crossed the border into neighboring Lebanon, and then proceeded to Egypt. Due to discrimination there, he decided to move to the West. Unable to get a visa to enter Canada, he resolved to try to reach Europe.

Like thousands of irregular migrants who took the long journey, in August 2014 Eiad huddled aboard a small boat to sail across the Mediterranean from the port city of Alexandria to Italy.

“It was a very small wooden boat. There was almost no space to sit,” he recalled.

After seven long days of this risky journey – a journey which has claimed untold lives – his group approached the coasts of Italy and awaited help.

"It was the beginning of September. The weather was so hot, and we ran out of food and water,” he remembered.

“I started counting the hours, thinking we would die. But after a few hours we saw a ship coming toward us. We were given food and water, and after seven days, we were rescued."

After setting foot in Italy, he started planning his journey to Britain, where he knew the language and thought he might pursue a future as a dentist.

Initially, he made it to Brussels, Belgium, where he worked at a Syrian restaurant to raise the money for a smuggler who would help him get to the UK.

Using Facebook, he contacted Syrians in Britain for help to make the illegal passage. He tried hiding inside car trunks and trucks with the help of a smuggler, and on his fifth attempt, managed to get through.

Hidden in a German truck, he finally made it to the English coastal town of Dover.

"I couldn't believe that I was in England. I was very happy to be in England," he said.

He said that soon after he arrived, he came face-to-face a police officer who he could see was Egyptian in origin.

This encounter made him realize, he said, that if an Egyptian could be a part of the British police force, a Syrian could also work as a dentist.

Hard work pays off

But life in the UK was not easy for him at first, and he had to work at a cafe to raise money towards his dream of again being a dentist.

In 2019, he was able to complete a master's program in dental public health at a London university, where – using an experience not far from his own – he wrote a thesis on the oral health problems of refugees.

At the same time, he passed exams to be able to work as a dentist in the island nation. Now he is pursuing a PhD, and is working on the topic of oral cancer.

Recalling his decision to take a small boat to Europe, he knew he had perhaps a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the journey. "I know that I would be between the sky and the water, and could die anytime. But I was desperate," he admitted.

After five years of struggle to hold onto life in the UK, Eiad finally feels he found his place in his adopted nation, he said.

“When I moved to this country, I never thought that I would feel at home here ... It's a nice feeling to know that you have a home again,” he said.

Calling on world leaders and activists to focus on the cause and not the symptoms of the migrant crisis in order to resolve it, he said the situation may unfortunately “never change,” as wars and conflicts continue in many countries, like the civil war in Syria that drove him away.

The only way to stop irregular migration “is to stop the armed conflicts in these countries," he said, urging respect and help for the people seeking refuge.

Hüseyin Demir