From refugee, to hospital cleaner, to national hero
Hospital cleaner, Hassan Akkad, pulled at the nation’s heartstrings when he Tweeted a video in May with an urgent message to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
In the video, shot in his car wearing his NHS hospital scrubs, an emotional Hassan complained to Mr Johnson that he felt “stabbed in the back”.
Why? Because the government had decided to exclude low-paid foreign NHS workers, such as him, from the bereavement scheme.
The scheme ensures that if a migrant NHS staff member dies of Covid-19, their families will still be able to stay in Britain, with ‘indefinite leave to remain’.
Hassan’s video had over 4 million views and caused a media sensation.
Hassan and others – including trade unions, MPs, journalists and members of the public – also protested that NHS migrant staff and their families were expected to pay a ‘surcharge’ to access the NHS whilst they worked for the NHS
The surcharge is rising from £400 to £625 a year each from October.
▪ VIDEO SUCCESS
Within hours of Hassan’s video being posted, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a dramatic government U-turn. The NHS bereavement scheme would now be extended to cover cleaners, porters and other low-paid roles, effective immediately and retrospectively.
The next day, the government also announced another major U-turn: at least for the time being, NHS migrant staff and their families would be excluded from the surcharge to use the NHS.
A spokesman for Boris Johnson said he had requested the Home Office and Department for Health to exempt NHS staff and care workers from the surcharge “as soon as possible”.
This was a major U-turn, as only on the previous day, Mr Johnson had firmly stood by the surcharge, telling MPs he “understood the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff”, but said the government “must look at the realities” of funding the NHS.
Hassan Tweeted a new video, saying his faith in Britain has been restored following the U-turns. He said:
“Thanks to all of you who put pressure on the government, they U-turned.”
Overnight, Hassan has become a national hero for his video.
But how many also know that Hassan had to risk his life to get to Britain?
▪ SYRIAN REFUGEE
Hassan is a Syrian refugee who fled torture and conflict in his country to make a long and arduous journey to Britain, arriving in September 2015.
He was a high school English teacher in Damascus before he was forced to escape in 2012, after being jailed and viciously beaten for taking part in an anti-government protest.
He told CBS News of his ordeal:
“They beat me with iron poles. I always thought I have a lovely face, so I was trying to protect my face, but they ended up smashing my arms.”
Hassan, then 24, was eventually released, reported CBS, but he knew his ‘only choice was to join the human tide of weary refugees making a break for safety in Europe’.
He first stayed in the Middle East, assuming he’d be able to return to Syria, before realising that was impossible. He travelled towards Turkey, hopeful of seeking refuge in Britain, as he spoke fluent English.
Hassan filmed his gruelling travels and the footage was used for a BBC documentary, ‘Exodus: The Journey’ which, thanks to Hassan’s input, won a Bafta award.
From Turkey, he undertook a perilous crossing to Greece in a leaking dinghy packed with 68 other refugees, describing it as the “lowest moment of the entire experience”.
Many thousands of refugees – men, women, children and babies – have drowned making exactly the same treacherous journey.
Hassan later spent two months in ‘the Jungle’ in Calais, the makeshift camp for refugees. Each night he says he attempted to swim from the shore onto one of the ferries crossing the Channel.
He paid £3,500 for a fake Czech passport and an EasyJet ticket to England, but was summoned back by border officials.
Eventually, he managed to fly to Heathrow on 27 September 2015, using a counterfeit Belgian passport.
His asylum application in the UK was granted six months later. He said:
“I picked Britain because I could speak English.”
▪ “ANYONE CAN BECOME A REFUGEE…”
Hassan told the PBS Frontline newsletter:
“Anyone can become a refugee, anyone.
“It’s not something which you choose. It’s something that happens to you.”
“People are not fleeing because they’re poor, or because they don’t have smartphones. They’re fleeing for their lives.”
Soon after Hassan arrived in the UK, the Evening Standard described his story as a:
‘quiet testament to the spirit of those who seek asylum here.’
Hassan told the Standard:
“I want to pay my tax. I want to make money, I want to learn. That’s the thing about Syrians — we don’t like to do nothing, we want to be part of any society that we’re in.”
He added that he wanted to get a master’s degree in conflict resolution or development.
“Because at some point we’re going to go back home. We’re not going to be here for ever. We’re going to rebuild a country that has been destroyed.”
▪ REFUGEES ARE NOT ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Many in the British press and beyond would describe Hassan as an illegal immigrant. But there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. And refugees are NOT migrants.
The term ‘migrant’ means a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions. Migrants voluntarily leave their home countries for another, and can voluntarily return home at any time.
That’s not the case for refugees. The term ‘refugee’ means a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.
They have to leave their homes involuntarily and they cannot return.
The vast majority of those risking their lives across the Mediterranean to reach Europe are genuine refugees, fleeing from war, torture, violence and slavery.
Back in 2015, the year Hassan made it to Britain, William Spindler, Senior Communications Officer for UNHCR told me:
“The approximate recognition rates in the EU for Syrian asylum seekers is around 95 percent and for Iraqis and Afghans it’s over 70 percent.
“In other words, the majority of Mediterranean arrivals will be recognized as refugees by EU countries.”
▪ SAFE COUNTRY
So, let’s be clear: there is no such thing as an illegal refugee, even if they have to use ‘illegal’ means to reach a safe country to seek asylum.
And contrary to popular myth, there is also no such law that says an asylum seeker must seek asylum in the first safe country they reach.
It is truly terrifying to find yourself unsafe and in mortal danger in your own country because your country has turned against you.
Only those who have experienced it first-hand can have any idea how it feels or its colossal impact.
Escape is the first gnawing, grim thought and ordeal – especially as most don’t manage to escape.
But then what? Once you’ve escaped, where do you escape to?
In many so-called safe countries, you might not speak their language – a huge handicap.
In many so-called safe countries, you might not feel welcome or even safe – especially in some European countries, such as Hungary, that blatantly don’t want refugees.
There are good reasons to want to find a country you can, at least for now, call home and feel safe.
▪ YEARNING FOR HOME
Hassan chose Britain. He was an English teacher and obviously speaks our language fluently. Making it safely to Britain resulted from his great fortitude and having him here is our good luck.
He has risked his life to get here. And now he is risking his life cleaning Covid-19 wards in a London hospital, helping our nation to get through the pandemic.
A humble role for someone clearly so talented.
Let’s thank and welcome him.
But let’s also not forget that refugees don’t flee from their countries out of choice. They do so because their lives are in desperate danger.
And the ones who make it are the minority. The majority get left behind and live terrible lives or suffer terrible deaths.
Those who flee must find deeply within themselves steely determination and courage, not just to successfully escape, but also to make whatever journey it takes to reach a country in which they feel they can call their new safe home and refuge.
What many don’t realise, because they have never been a refugee, is that for most refugees, the country they would most like to call their ‘safe home’ is the one they’ve left behind – where they were born, grew up, have family, their roots, went to school, have friends and often, a professional career.
They miss and yearn for home, their real home; a place that, for many, it may never be safe or possible to return.
- Watch 6-minute video which includes Hassan’s message to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and a trailer of the documentary, ‘Exodus: Our Journey’ showing Hassan’s treacherous journey in a dingy across the Mediterranean:
- Watch Hassan say thank you to the public for their support:
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