‘I feared Isis would kill me’ - the Syrian designer who ended up a refugee in Preston

Mostafa Sheikh Mohammad
Mostafa Sheikh Mohammad
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TO ESCAPE violence in Syria, Mostafa risked his life crossing land and sea to seek security in the UK.

Leaving behind his wife and son, the designer and cameraman climbed into an inflatable boat in desperation to escape attacks in his home town of Aleppo.

His English is good but it is clear he can’t bring himself fully to describe the horrors he escaped, and the despair at abandoning his family.

“When you love someone and you know they are in danger, you go crazy,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

“But I control myself because I’m a good human and I believe in God, and I believe he will save them.”

Kurdish Mostafa Sheikh Mohammad, 35, forged a successful career after qualifying as a graphic designer, redesigning homes and factories inside and out, working alongside engineers on major projects.

His wife, Narin, gave up a psychology degree because of the bombing and found work in a beauty salon.

But Mostafa realised his life was in danger when he was attacked and sprayed with tear gas by police and soldiers, while he was praying in the streets of Aleppo last year.

He was targeted a second time, and said he was unable to leave his home until he and his family moved to his father’s house in Afrin, in northern Syria, to try to escape the bombing.

Recalling the terrifying situation, he says: “I heard from my cousin in Aleppo, living near my house, who said, ‘They are bombing your home’.

“Part of my home was down - it’s a five-storey flat.

“I’m also a cameraman, there were so many people saying, ‘Mostafa, you must move because Isis may catch you and kill you’.

“The government of Syria is catching all cameramen because when we are out in the street we make videos and upload them to the internet, so they want me, the government and Isis want me.”

Mostafa gathered some money and began his journey to the UK on foot, crossing the border into Turkey.

He said: “I walked for about five hours. When I got to Turkey, I saw so many people who wanted to move in the night.

“We were careful so the police in Turkey couldn’t see us.” 
He moved to the Turkish city of Izmir as part of a group of about 10 people, where he stayed for about 20 days.

He explains: “Then, we went to Greece in an inflatable boat.

“It was about five metres (long), with 30 people and one child, and two pregnant women.

“I was frightened and worried about the women.

“I was so afraid, I wanted to keep my life, I didn’t want my son to lose his father, I was worried about the women and the child.

“Everyone was afraid and talking so much, I just tried to calm them down.

“I don’t want to remember it, it’s so hard.”

The group made it to Mytilini, on the Greek island of Lesvos, before walking across the island for three days.

Mostafa recalls: “No cars stopped because the government of Greece catches everyone and they are put in prison.

“One woman who was pregnant collapsed, and me and my friend carried her.”

They eventually arrived in a camp on the island, but Mostafa says conditions were so bad they were forced to sleep outside.
He says: “We stayed at the camp for four days, and it was so dirty.

“We couldn’t stay in the camp, we went outside and stayed in the street. We stayed in a garden with the group.

“The camp was so bad I felt like I was going to be sick.

“There were people from other countries, I don’t know how they were living.

“There was no food, we bought food with our own money, no electric or anything, just sleeping outside.

“It was so cold at night and so hot in the day.”

Mostafa risked his own safety to buy medication for a sick child in a pharmacy, after he was refused hospital treatment because he didn’t have the correct papers.

Eventually, he left the island on a boat to Athens, where he was given a fake passport to fly to Gatwick.

When in London, he asked the authorities to arrest him in desperation.

He says: “I told the man, ‘Save me, I’ve run away from my country because of the war.’

“He was talking with me, he was so lovely, I was so afraid because I thought they were going to send me back.”

Mostafa was moved between hotels in London, Manchester and then Liverpool, where he stayed for about a month-and-a-half.

He reveals he has supported Liverpool FC since he was 17, admiring Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, and was able to walk around Anfield.

After moving to Preston in November, he says he is now determined to make a life here with his family.

He says: “In Preston, I see so many lovely people from all countries.

“I like Preston, I see all the smiling faces and it’s so important for me.”

Mostafa, currently classed as an asylum seeker, is awaiting an interview in the hopes of being granted a visa, and bringing his family out of Syria. In the meantime, he helps his new friends by translating for them.

He is also the coach of a football team, made up of players from Sudan, Syria, Eritrea and the UK, who he met with the help of drop-in sessions run by the Red Cross.

He says: “I’m planning to stay in Preston, I like it and I want to bring my family over.

“I don’t ask anybody for any money, I just want to save my family.

“All my life I’ve studied and worked, but I can’t because I don’t have my visa.”

He is able to communicate with his wife, but isn’t sure if his family is safe.

On the verge of tears, he says: “I don’t want to talk about it. I can’t think about them, it’s so bad.”

Mostafa fills his time cleaning his Deepdale home, studying to improve his English, and reading books from the library.