From Syria To The UK: Waad Al-Kateab On Why ‘Our Health Workers Are Our Only Hope’
Feature

From Syria To The UK: Waad Al-Kateab On Why ‘Our Health Workers Are Our Only Hope’

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor, Jack Satchell, Film Producer 15 Jun 2020
Health, Immigration

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“I think the only hope we have is through these people we are clapping for: our carers and our heroes in the UK,” says Syrian filmmaker and activist Waad Al-Kateab. Six months on from the release of her award-winning ‘For Sama’, the mum-of-two has turned her lens from filming medics in Syria to healthcare workers in the UK at this time of national crisis.

Finding hope, even in the darkest circumstances, is the most important lesson she says she learned while filming the feature-length documentary in a battle-ravaged hospital in Aleppo, Syria’s second city.

It is a lesson she traces back to one heart-stopping moment during the film, in which Waad records medics in a makeshift hospital struggling to save the life of a woman who is nine months pregnant.

The doctors are forced to perform an emergency C-section on the woman, who is unconscious after being injured in a bombing campaign on the city.

Her baby son emerges, blue and not breathing. Medics turn him upside down and frantically pat his back in a bid to revive him, but he remains lifeless for what feels like an eternity as the camera keeps rolling.

Suddenly, the baby opens his eyes and lets out a cry. Both the boy and his mum will live.

“It was one of the moments I can get hope from for the whole of my life,” the 29-year-old says. “Every three seconds I just wanted to turn the camera off and run out. Especially as I gave birth to [my daughter] Sama in the same room.”

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For five years, Waad filmed every detail of her journey from student protester to mother raising a family with her medic husband, Hamza, in a besieged Aleppo hospital. 

The film, framed as a love letter to her infant daughter Sama, provides harrowing evidence of how healthcare facilities and health workers have been “systematically targeted” by the Syrian regime in violation of international law.

It has led to the creation of her Action for Sama campaign, which seeks to create awareness and push for accountability for war crimes and build pressure for this injustice to end.

 

In May 2018 the Al-Kateab family – completed by their youngest daughter Taima – moved to the UK and were granted refugee status. “With the lockdown, we are like any other family now. Struggling just to survive this boring time, especially for the kids. But we are doing well, thank you,” she says.

It is tricky to imagine Waad living the same “boring” new normal that many of us are, after watching her journey from Aleppo to the Oscars where her film was shortlisted as 2020’s best documentary feature.

She speaks to EachOther via video call from the Channel 4 offices in London, where she continues to work as a journalist. In a striking parallel, her lens has now turned from covering medics in Syria towards healthcare workers in UK amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

As of 3 June, at least 245 healthcare workers in the UK are believed to have died from Covid-19 since March. That is higher than the number of British soldiers killed during nine years of operations in Iraq.

The UK government now faces legal action on multiple fronts over charges it has failed to uphold its duty to protect health workers’ lives – principally by failing to provide adequate personal protective equipment.

 

Will the Covid-19 crisis change the way medics and carers rights’ are respected? “Yes, absolutely,” Waad says. “It should change our way of looking at these people. I have been back again to hospitals and meeting these amazing people … who are really risking their lives for everything.”

She adds: “We should really stand for their rights and not just, like, celebrate them … but also try to help put all the pressure on the government to ask for their rights [to be respected].”

 

Waad’s story is one example of remarkable resilience. As she has seen in the course of her reporting, it is a characteristic common to refugees across the UK. 

Among them is a refugee doctor she met named Bashar, who is also from Syria, and who wishes to help on the UK’s Covid frontline despite the risks. However, he has been prevented from doing so amid bureaucratic hurdles, Waad says. In March, hundreds more like him urged the government and the General Medical Council to fast-track their accreditation so they can help tackle the pandemic. “We just hope that the UK government will look at these refugee doctors and help them to process all their papers and re-qualify quickly to be doctors again to support the amazing heroes working now,” Waad says.

While settling in to the UK, Waad longs to one day return to Syria. However, asking her what she thinks the future holds for her homeland, she says: “To be very honest, I’m not optimistic at all … If you just look at the reality now it’s very, very complicated. I don’t know how we could really find a way of getting out from this.”

“But I will keep in my mind and in my dreams every day that one day we will have a free country, and everything will be okay.”

In the first five years of the Syrian conflict, as many as 400,000 people were killed according to the UN Envoy for Syria. Roughly 5.6million people have fled the country. The Syrian regime, backed by Iran and Russia, controls a majority of the nation’s territory and continues to battle with opposition forces.

“All the countries all over the world, they are watching the Syrians suffering year after year without doing anything and without taking any responsibility,” Waad says. “While on the other hand the Russian government and the Iranian government are just supporting the regime with all the weapons and all the armies that they need to kill their own people.”

A vigil held in London for the people of Idlib in Syria. Credit: Action for Sama

More important than resettling refugees, she adds, is for the international community to come together to make external interference in Syria stop. “If they prevent the Russian government interfering in Syria and all these militias went out of Syria, I think we would be in a better position.”

Asked how the divisions in Syrian society can be healed once the conflict ends, Waad’s outlook is more positive. “I really believe that we are, as a people and as a community, not in division. We are really similar and we’ve experienced pain in so many like different circumstances and sides.

“When we have justice, we will find an amazing community with solidarity and respect.”

“When people in our country feel dignity and know exactly what freedom means … that will help us [get past] all the division between each other and be as one community.”

EachOther has put its big questions to Waad, in an interview which covers everything from the UK’s Covid-19 crisis to the future of Syria.

Watch our video interview below or read the full story. 

Please describe what you do in 15 words

So I’m a filmmaker, a journalist and activist. I’m trying to keep our story of Syria and of what we have been through [alive] as well as fighting to find justice.

What advice would you give to a 10-year-old-you?

I want to tell them to open their eyes and their hearts to the whole world … and not just limit your whole world to your home or your neighbourhood or your country. Look beyond, beyond, beyond what you can see exactly.

You can find hope in everything; in a child who smiles at you …

Waad Al-Kateab

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

The most important lesson is: find hope, everywhere and anywhere. If you can’t find that hope, try to create it. This is not an easy thing. We should do that. Definitely.

Whenever I felt so desperate, like there’s no hope or I am in a very dark place and will never get out from this … there was always something.

You can find hope in everything; in a child who smiles at you, in someone who’s telling you very strong, powerful words for a moment.

One of the main moments was when I was filming the baby born story. I was filming a dead kid. A dead baby who had just been born and died a second later.

Every three seconds I just wanted to turn the camera off and run out. Especially as I gave birth to Sama in the same room. It was so hard and so emotional and awful for me to see another mum give birth to her first child without the happy ending we all expect.

I don’t know why and I don’t know how I just kept filming. When that baby opened his eyes, it was like just one of the moments where I can get hope from for the whole of my life. That’s why I felt clearly like we should just keep trying and believe in something and we will find hope anyway.

What are you most proud of?

I’m so proud of all the people who I know and met in Aleppo and all of the people who keep telling the Syria story. Not just For Sama, which is just one small piece of the puzzle. The picture that the revolution has allowed us to draw is made up of so many activists and people in different sectors. Together they make up the amazing story of the Syrian people.

What do you hope to achieve which you haven’t yet?

I just would love to keep going and keep doing important stuff. Not just about what I’ve went through and my experience. But also in some totally different circumstances. I’m working now with Channel 4 news, trying to do some reports about coronavirus and finding really different stories. I hope I will always find my way of doing important stuff.

If there’s one injustice in the UK right now that you could fix, what would it be and why?

It’s a story actually we are working on now. I hope every refugee who came here to the UK, specifically the doctors and medical workers, to be able to work now if they want to. It’s very long, boring and hard process for them to be qualified here again. So I hope that could happen very, very quickly.

What is the most important human right to you? Why?

Freedom. That’s what we lost so many people in Syria for. It’s just one basic and very important right. If we are free, if we can talk freely, if we can express ourselves and our dreams, this will help us to build our free country with dignity and a good future.

How can we heal the divisions in society at the moment?

The main way of really healing these divisions is justice. If we find justice … we all feel like victims, like people who lost our loved ones, that experienced so much horror or were tortured for being against the regime … if we all find justice in one way or another …this is the main thing that will heal all the pain that we have as Syrian people.

What do you think will be the future for Syria? How optimistic are you?

Actually, to be very honest, I’m not optimistic at all. I’m even trying to help myself to not think about that. If you just look at the reality now it’s very, very complicated. I don’t know how we could really find a way of getting out from this.

All the countries all over the world, they are watching the Syrians suffering year after year without doing anything and without taking any responsibility. While on the other hand the Russian government and the Iranian government are just supporting the regime with all the weapons and all the armies that they need to kill their own people.

So I’m just really trying not to think about this. But I will keep in my mind and in my dreams every day that one day we will have a free country.

When people in our country feel dignity and know exactly what freedom means … that will help us [get past] all the division between each other and be as one community.

Waad Al-Kateab

How do you begin trying to bridge the divisions in Syrian society when the war ends?

I don’t think that division will stay for a long time. I think what we are feeling and what we are living now, it’s just a fake division. The violence that the regime uses and all the propaganda means that, even if people know the truth they will not be able to tell it. They will not be able even to think right and under all that pressure.

I really believe that we are, as a people and as a community, not in division. We are really similar and we’ve experienced pain in so many like different circumstances and sides. When we have justice, we will find an amazing community with solidarity and respect.

When people in our country feel dignity and know exactly what freedom means … that will help us pass all the division between each other and be as one community.

What action do you think the UK and the international community should be taking towards Syria?

I hope for them not to think about the result of the problem and to do some good stuff but not solve the main problem. What we want them to do is not to welcome refugees, we don’t want them to resettle refugees. Me, as a refugee now in the UK, I wish I could be back in Syria any second.

We want them to take responsibility to solve the main problem. To sue the regime. To stop them carrying out the massacres that they are doing everyday. This is what we really want as Syrian people. We don’t want to be out of our country and live in another country and be safe here.

We want our country to be safe to be back to that country. So I really wish for them to stop looking around for a solution.

The main problem is the regime – Bashar Al Assad with his officers all in the palace in Damascus. Please stop looking around. Look at the main problem. Don’t look at the results and try to just make it better.

So would you say you’d like them to intervene?

They have their solution. And I’m sure they know what the best thing to do to solve this. They just don’t want to do this. They don’t want to maybe get into a big war with Russia and with like Iran and so many other countries around.

If they just make all the interference in Syria stop. If they prevent the Russian government interfering in Syria and all this militia went out of Syria, I think we would be a better position.

We all want a better future for us, for our children.

Waad Al-Kateab

While you were in Aleppo, did you work with people who you disagreed with? How did you manage that?

Yeah, absolutely, yes. As a community we don’t have the knowledge and the experience to deal with so many different people. We’ve never experienced real freedom before and how to use it in these highly pressurised circumstances.

Most of us, as activists and people who believe in freedom and dignity and the free country, we were looking at this as a place where we could work together to achieve one step towards that freedom.

I was just trying to focus on the work that we should do and that we all believe we want a better future for all of us. So let’s just forget a little bit about what we like agree or disagree now, and just focus [on the fact] that we are all against the regime. We are all against that killing.

We all want a better future for us, for our children.

 

When I was in Aleppo I was 21. When I went out from there, I was like 26. This age is when you change your mind like a lot and start to build your character and know which way you want to go.

In these circumstances, there’s so much agreement and disagreement about structure that our country will be after the regime falls. Some people wanted an Islamic country, we wanted a liberal country that respects everyone.

We were just trying to keep that conversation up and question ourselves all the time about the future that we are working on … and how we want to make sure that everyone in this country, whatever their religion was, whatever their like opinion was, should be respected and should be all, like, having the same rights.

Waad Al-Kateab and her daughter Sama. Credits: Supplied

How do you feel you’ve been treated in the UK?

I will say that my experience was very unique. When I came here to the UK for the first time I had around 70 people who I’ve never met before, but I know them all through my work with Channel 4 news.

So I was very welcome in this community. There was so many Syrians who were here before and who knew some of the story or watched the Inside Aleppo series, so were really, really welcoming.

I don’t think that’s every refugee’s experience here. And even my paperwork and my family reunion didn’t take a long time because the UK government was aware of our story.

I really hope that my experience could be the same for any refugee who is coming here and it is not just because I’m a well known person or something. And I wish we can all, as Syrian refugees, be back to our country one day.

I’m aware that so many refugees have so many difficulties with language, getting a home or to deal with their trauma and everything they’ve been through before. So I just really wish that my experience should be for everyone as well.

In the UK, healthcare workers have been dying amid the pandemic. Do you think that this pandemic will change the way we look at their rights?

Yes, absolutely. It should change our way of looking at these people. I have been back again to hospitals and meeting these amazing people and these heroes who are really risking their lives for everything.

I think that the only hope we have is through all these people who we are clapping for: our carers and our heroes in the UK. We should really stand for their rights and not just celebrate them and their work but also try to help them to put all the pressure on the government to ask for their rights [to be respected].

They are really risking their lives and trying to just do their best in very bad circumstances and in very high pressure from their families, from the community, from their worries even. So, I just feel like that there’s a big responsibility on us all, as people who are living in this country now, to help these people take their rights.

In terms of hospitals in Syria … the doctors are now facing, in addition to all those big challenges before, the same challenges that doctors are [in the UK] with the pandemic.

In Syria, unfortunately we don’t have even good tests yet. It’s just a different kind of world that has so many more challenges.

So, I just want to really thank everyone in Syria, and in all the world and also in the UK, who are trying to help people.

That’s the only hope we still have … to be with each other in solidarity and to support each other and to keep going. To keep finding hope through these, unfortunately, very bad circumstances.

Note: Response have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Throughout Refugee Week (15 – 20 June), Waad Al-Kateab is set to take part in a number of online Q&A events. Find out more here.

Find out more

Action For Sama
Action For Sama

An organisation seeking to end targeted attacks against healthcare facilities in Syria.

Find out more
Physicians for Human Rights
Physicians for Human Rights

An NGO which works at the intersection of medicine, science, and law to secure human rights and justice for all.

Find out more
Doctors Association UK
Doctors Association UK

A doctor-led grassroots lobbying and campaigning group advocating for the medical profession and the wider NHS.

Find out more