‘The nightmares affect your whole life’

What’s it really like to be a war refugee? The For Sama film director
WAAD AL-KATEAB, who escaped the ruins of Aleppo for suburban Romford,
tells Anna Moore how the years spent under siege still haunt her family. PHOTOGRAPHS: SEBASTIAN BOETTCHER

Just recently, Waad Al-Kateab and her husband Hamza were clearing the garage of their home near Romford, when their two daughters, aged five and six, lined up the contents for a garage sale. A passing neighbour stopped to buy something and asked where they were from. They told him ‘Syria’. He looked at Waad, then at Hamza, and asked in semi-disbelief, ‘Are you the For Sama family?’ The next day, he brought them flowers. ‘The film is doing a lot of easy introductions for us,’ says Waad.

Anyone who has seen For Sama will understand why. The moving documentary, which was released in 2019 and won awards at Cannes, the Baftas and the Emmys, starts in 2011 when Waad is a student in Aleppo.

She decides to film the peaceful student protests triggered by the Arab Spring and captures the brutal response by President Assad’s regime. Waad becomes part of the rebellion, committed to a free, democratic Syria. As the war intensifies and Russia is recruited to rain down missiles on behalf of the Syrian government, she never stops filming. Along the way, she falls in love and marries Hamza, a fellow activist and doctor who founds a hospital in East Aleppo. When that hospital is destroyed, he builds another.

Amid this carnage and chaos, their daughter Sama is born. By the end of 2016, the family is living in the city under siege without power or supplies and their hospital is the last one standing. So much has been lost ‒ their friends, neighbours, nurses, even the doctor who delivered Sama have all been killed. The Russians send a message to Hamza that they will spare the lives of those who leave now. The film ends as the family drives out of Aleppo, a decimated ghost city, Waad pregnant for a second time.

Waad, Hamza and Sama in the film For Sama

What happened next, and how the family moved through the trauma to settle in a quiet corner of East London, is less well known.

‘You know, we loved it here since day one,’ says Waad, now 31, who first moved to Leytonstone, before settling on Romford.

‘But we were scared to love it. I didn’t want to have any good feelings about it because…’ She stops, her eyes filling with tears. ‘I’m sorry. For us, it’s only Aleppo, and I didn’t want any new place to feel like home. Now, though, I love London so much. I don’t want to think about it as a home… but I’ve started to say it’s like a “second home”.’

It took them 18 months to get to the UK. When they first left Syria, they crossed to Turkey, close to the border where many displaced friends and family were living. Here, their second daughter Taima was born in May 2017. ‘It is a country that felt familiar – there’s a similar culture to Syria, and where we lived was full of Syrians so you don’t feel strange,’ says Waad. But it was hard to see a future. ‘As a refugee, you’re issued temporary cards which give you access to the public hospitals and aid,’ she says. ‘But you don’t have the right to work, to go to university. You don’t know what will happen, or if you’ll be sent back to Syria. You’re in limbo.’

Throughout the war, Waad and Hamza had been sending footage and reports to Channel 4 News, which was keen to secure visas for them to come and work in the UK. As is always the case – as we are hearing today with Ukrainian refugees – bureaucracy slowed them down. Taima was born without a birth certificate and they couldn’t register her without crossing to Syria where Waad and Hamza’s lives would have been under threat from the Assad regime. With their passports about to expire, they were forced to leave one-year-old Taima with family in Turkey and fly to England to claim asylum, in the hope that she could join them soon. It was six months before the paperwork was sorted and they were reunited.

‘It’s as if this period doesn’t exist in my brain – I don’t remember anything,’ says Waad. ‘We never had a picture of the UK; we were never thinking, “How will it be?” The only thing we thought or talked about was Taima.’

The family today

Although Waad stresses that her passage to the UK was far easier than for most refugees ‒ ‘I had a visa so I didn’t have to risk my life to get here. I came by plane’ – she was traumatised by the experience. ‘You’ve lost everything, and although you’re safe, you don’t just flick a switch and feel safe. You’re still looking around for danger. The sound of a tube train as you stand on the platform in the station is very similar to the noise when an aircraft comes to bomb you. This feeling hits your body in a very scary way. You have flashbacks, nightmares.’

Waad has twice sought therapy for her nightmares. ‘They’re about surviving and not surviving, about the girls, about Hamza, about being bombed or seeing something bad happening to someone and not being able to free them. It affects your whole life ‒ even in the daytime, you feel so heavy because of what you live through at night.’

At the same time, there was so much to learn. ‘I can’t make simple comparisons because in Syria for the last five years we didn’t have trains, lights, rules, no fruit or vegetables – we didn’t have Tesco! I remember the first time we went to Tesco in the UK, I was going to buy five kilos of rice. It’s this feeling that the siege will come back again. Then we realised that we didn’t need that much. We were laughing! Hamza said, “This will be here when we next come. Nothing is going to change!”’

Waad and Hamza are still fighting for their country while building a life here. When we meet, Waad has just landed in New York where she is speaking to the UN about getting aid convoys into Syria. For two years she worked as a producer for Channel 4, but now makes a living from film-making – her latest project is about the Refugee Olympic Team. Hamza, meanwhile, has completed a master’s in public health and has been accepted for a doctorate at King’s College London. The couple form part of the core team of Action For Sama, the campaign they co-founded which works to address many of the issues raised in the film.

They find much to be grateful for here. ‘The system of life is how we dreamt our country would be,’ she says. ‘Your election day was very emotional for us, even though we can’t vote.’ (In Syria, there is only one name on the ballot papers: Bashar Al-Assad.)

British schools are very different, too – Sama is in year one and Taima in reception. ‘They love it and we love it,’ says Waad. ‘In Syria, we have military school. The uniform is military, you don’t have critical thinking. The teacher is more like an officer and you receive the information, you don’t need to understand it.’ Sama and Taima have befriended the two girls next door and speak with English accents, often correcting their parents’ pronunciation. Although they love Syrian food, they also enjoy fish and chips, pasta and meatballs, and appreciate scones.

Despite this stability, both Waad and Hamza have found the strangest things can hurl them backwards. ‘You don’t remember the obvious things – there are complicated connections which remind you of Syria in a weird way,’ says Waad. The pandemic was one: the feel of a mask on your face; the lockdown rules which kept you isolated in your home. ‘Everything was reminding us of Syria at that time,’ says Waad. ‘You know how the NHS became the heart of things, and everything was about the doctors, the nurses and health workers? It was the same in Syria living under siege. The fears, the worrying about your loved ones, and the way whole communities came together.’

In May 2020, during the first lockdown, Waad spent eight days filming in a hospital in Kent for a report on Covid for Channel 4. ‘At the beginning, I didn’t want to put myself in a dangerous place again,’ she says, ‘but it was something I could do. I started to see all the people I knew in Syria in the faces of the doctors and nurses. I still have friends from inside that hospital. For the first time, I felt that this can be my community and I can give back. I was able to do something for the UK. I felt so different after that.’

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been a brutal reminder of history repeating itself. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ says Waad. ‘The first week was like a big shock with a little bit of hope ‒ “The world won’t let this happen again”. Then weeks passed.

‘For years since For Sama came out, we did so much to keep the conversation going. We’ve been to Parliament, we’ve had community screenings, we’ve spoken to MPs about the Russian bombing of hospitals, the targeting of civilians. Everything we have known, we are seeing again today.’

As a refugee, Waad is always torn between two times, two places. The future propels her forward while the past drags her back. Each family milestone is a bittersweet reminder of what she has left behind. ‘There are so many good things to be happy about,’ she says, ‘but at the same time, they make you feel really sad. When Sama went to school for the first time, everything was great, but there’s this sorrow, you know?’

Waad dreams of going home. ‘I keep it in my hopes, I see it as a video in my head,’ she says. ‘One day, Assad will be gone. There would still be difficulties in Syria, but I would be happy, I would be going back. We would walk around Aleppo and show my girls where my house was, where the hospital was and how we lived. I hope we will do that.

‘At the same time, it’s Sama and Taima’s choice more than mine. Six years have gone by so quickly. In another ten years they’ll be making their own decisions. If they feel this is their home, and this is where they want to stay, I won’t try to stop them.’

For more information on Waad’s work, visit actionforsama.com. For Sama can be watched on All 4

@Waadalkateab/instagram, For sama