The safety of a modest flat in the West Midlands and the care of a British midwife for the birth of her fifth child is a debt Nour knows she can never repay.
That is because the young mother is one of the fortunate group of less than 100 refugees who have been resettled in the UK as part of a scheme offer sanctuary to the most vulnerable victims of Syria’s four-year civil war.
In 2011, when the fighting broke out in northern Syria, she used her basic first aid skills to help treat survivors as – in her words – “homes were shelled to rubble”.
Her activity soon came to the attention of the regime, leading to her imprisonment and torture. Her crime was to have dared to have helped injured civilians caught in the middle of the conflict.
“They beat people in front of me until they died,” she told The Independent. “They beat me with electric cables every day. They beat me day and night with the back of a rifle. They wanted me to admit to being a terrorist because I helped people who were hurt.”
After a period of detention – she is not certain how long the regime kept her – a prisoner swap reunited her with her four children. (The fifth, a girl, was born in England in December.) She fled to Lebanon, where she lived in shacks and shelters, before the United Nations arranged for her to come to Britain last July. She was one of the first Syrians to arrive.
Ed Thompson's images of Syria's refugee crisis
Ed Thompson's images of Syria's refugee crisis
1/11 At a mosque in Chhim
A local sheik took in two orphan girls (one of whom can be seen peeking through the curtain), whose parents were shot in Syria. He says: "They were in agony, they were helpless. God knows how they found their way from Syria.
"They told me that their parents got shot, along with everyone from their family, and they escaped. They are so young, it's a miracle they are still alive. I did my best to take them in and help them.
"They are still in shock and are very depressed; they had nightmares and would run out screaming from the room. I don't know what to do with them except take care of them."
2/11 Sharing their stories
The images were taken by British photojournalist Ed Thompson at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon last December
3/11 At a mosque in Chhim
Amer, the father of this little girl, says:"One day my brother and I, our wives, the kids, my father, we decided to escape from our town in Homs. We were being attacked from every side, and as we got in a taxi, we got hit on the road.
"We managed to get out and run but then a second shell fell next to us and I was hit. When I recovered, we [escaped] to Lebanon.
"We decided to come to Chhim and thanks to the mosque, we have at least shelter. My brother registered us at the United Nations; they helped for two months but after that they stopped. Without surgery, they'll have to cut off [my leg]. Life has come to a stop for us."
4/11 Breaking through the political soundbites
Thompson and Sammy Hamze, a 20-year-old Lebanese art student studying in London, spent six days in Chhim, western Lebanon, interviewing refugees in camps, those taken in by Lebanese families and those forced to pay steep rent for squalid properties
5/11 Personalising the crisis
Thompson wanted to draw attention to two startling statistics: that of the nearly one million (official) Syrian refugees displaced in Lebanon, almost half are children; and around one in five, according to Unicef, are less than five years old
6/11 Lost innocence
What shook Thompson most was that the children, although appearing older than their years, were still so young. "They are innocent, completely innocent," he says now. "One father told me to look at his family; he could barely feed his son. They had been through hell, walked through hell and got to hell. All they want to do is go home."
7/11 Abandoned families
The conflict that has torn Syria apart has raged for almost three years, left more than 100,000 people dead in its wake and driven nine-and-a-half million from their homes
8/11 Huge risk
Thompson is so worried about both the security of the people he photographed, and their families back at home, that he does not want to disclose their exact location. Their stories are what he wants told
9/11 A life in limbo
People live under the mosque or in makeshift tents, scrabbling for food and recounting what they have lost
10/11 Syrian refugees living in rented houses, Chhim
Ahmad Taher (pictured with his children) "I live here in this cave under this building. Even the poor Lebanese won't live here. It's infested, it's dangerous and I have two children living here. I'm trying my best but conditions are very hard; eight people live in this room.
"Everything here is killing us slowly. We are poorer than the poor and everything we have here was donated by the townspeople. When we left from Qusair, Syria, we were shot at; my wife broke her leg as well. Somehow I managed to carry her and the kids to safety here. But what can I say? I don't know what to say any more."
11/11 Syrian refugees living in rented houses, Chhim
Yaseen Abdulatif El Dos (pictured with his children): "We are living a very hard life; we have nothing. Soon I will have no money to support my family. The water is contaminated. Everything we have here in this room is from the garbage.
"We had a wonderful life in Syria. Nine people live here in one room and I'm paying $300 rent, and now that winter is here, we are very cold. There's nothing to keep us warm. There's one bathroom open to the kitchen and there is no door.
"Here's a joke: a rat came in one day and went into the house and he found out that there are Syrian refugees living here so he cursed his head off and left, because we were not Lebanese and had nothing to give him."
Nour isn’t her real name. Her parents are still in Syria and at risk of reprisals. But now – on the first anniversary of the Government’s decision to accept some Syrian refugees – she takes the brave step of speaking out to ask Britain to welcome more.
Last January, following a concerted campaign supported by The Independent, the Government committed to resettling 500 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
Since then, though, its pledge has been downgraded to a commitment to resettle “several hundred” Syrians over several years. Latest immigration statistics show that just 90 Syrians, including Nour, have arrived under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme.
Frustrated by the Government’s lack of action, Refugee Council, Amnesty International and Oxfam today publish an open letter to David Cameron urging the Prime Minister to take the “simple, yet historic” choice of offering refuge to more victims.
The letter is signed by the Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, Grayson Perry, Sting, Bella Freud, Dan Snow, Juliet Stevenson, Ken Loach, Micheal Palin, Stephen Frears, Vanessa Redgrave and Vivienne Westwood.
It says: “We couldn’t have been more disappointed when we discovered the scale of your ambition for Syria’s refugees… Resettling ‘several hundred people’ just isn’t good enough for a global leader.”
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, said: “The UK often prides itself on its history of offering sanctuary to refugees but this Government can’t hold its head high when it comes to the most vulnerable refugees from the conflict in Syria.”
Maurice Wren, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, added: “The question is, does David Cameron want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who rationed his compassion to a few hundred people?”
The signatories to today’s letter to David Cameron, say they are “ashamed” at the size of Britain’s resettlement effort. This follows a call in November made by 30 leading aid and refugee agencies in the Independent for the British Government to resettle up to 10,000 refugees from Syria by the end of 2015.
Aid agencies are keen to stress that resettlement would be temporary. Nour, who has received additional support from the charity Citizens UK, said she had a “sense of relief” at leaving “constant fear” behind, adding that she was “grateful” to the Midlands council that has resettled her and 50 of her compatriots.
She said: “I’ve been treated so well here. But Britain should take more Syrians… There are many more people more at risk than me. Britain should offer them sanctuary to take them away from the fear. Britain should make them safe – just until the regime falls or there is peace. I love Syria; there is no doubt I will go back when I can.”
Meanwhile, the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and the surrounding region is continuing to get worse, with the number of refugees in the region swelling to more than 3.7 million, many suffering from unusually severe winter conditions in the region.
The UN’s Refugee Agency UNHCR is calling on governments from around the world to offer 130,000 by the end of 2016, with other countries including Germany, Canada and the USA promising to resettle tens of thousands.
In a pointed intervention, António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the “exceptional situation requires exception measures” from Western countries.
He told The Independent: “Syria has become the defining humanitarian challenge of our time, and the massive refugee influx has had an enormous impact on the neighbouring countries which urgently need more support. We are also calling on other states to make available far more opportunities for Syrian refugees to find safety beyond the region, not only as a life-saving protection measure for very vulnerable people, but also as an important signal of solidarity with the neighbouring countries.”
The Government is keen to stress that Britain has been at the “forefront” of the humanitarian response to the crisis and has pledged £700m. But some councils currently outside the VPR scheme – including Kingston and Malvern – have come forward offering to accept additional Syrian refugees.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said Mr Cameron should be “ashamed” of the Government’s record, which was in “stark contrast” to other Western countries. She said: “The UNHCR is asking some of the wealthiest countries in the world to help orphaned children, women who have been raped, people who have fled their homes with serious medical conditions and – whether through callousness or incompetence – the Government is just not doing enough.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Since the crisis began we have granted asylum or other forms of leave to over 3,400 Syrian nationals and dependents. In addition, through our Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, we are working closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify those most at risk and bring them to the UK.”Reuse content