Sitting in a Huddersfield restaurant surrounded by a feast of the finest Middle Eastern cuisine, Syrian Kurdish refugee Sleman Shwaish seems right at home.
A masters student about to begin his course at Huddersfield University, he has found himself at the heart of a warm and welcoming Kurdish community since arriving in the town in 2013.
But it has not been such an easy journey to the Pennines for Sleman, who fled what he describes as a “country of death” that had been overwrought by a civil war that has killed several of his friends and left him with horrifying images too unmentionable to talk about.
Forced to leave everyone he loved behind at only 24 in 2012, he endured imprisonment and fear of the unknown in an anxious bid to escape compulsory enlistment in the despotic Assad regime’s army or the even worse fate that awaited him if he had refused to join.
“I’d just finished studying at Aleppo university which is when the regime says you must join the army, “ said Sleman.
“It was just the year after the Syrian revolution and I’d seen first hand how brutal and terrifying the government was due to working as a first aid worker for the International Red Crescent.
“I knew that anyone who spoke out against faced arrest or even being killed, especially if they are Kurdish like my family are.
“My dad was imprisoned for two months for writing an article in 1994 and some of my cousins are still in jail because they refused to sign up so I knew that there was no alternative but to escape. There’s nowhere to hide in Syria.”
He crossed the border to Lebanon without his exam certificates so that government officials would not notice that he had left before moving to Turkey and then England.
It was there that he faced his first barrier to freedom from fear.
“I had to plan it all on my own so had no idea what was in store for me,” Sleman added. “I had to give my passport up to someone who helped me travel from Turkey to the UK so I claimed asylum in Stansted Airport.
“They took me straight to a large detention centre where I was held for one month. It was terrifying because I felt like a criminal. All I was trying to do was escape a country of death and save my life.
“My family had no idea what had happened to me and it was one month before I could contact them again to let them know I was OK. I hurt so much from the pain of missing my friends and family.”
Fortunately, he was soon accepted as a temporary refugee, a term he hopes to extend by applying for full residency in 2018.
He flashes his passport, smiling, proof that for now at least his future is safe.
Sleman was moved to Wakefield and Sunderland, where he applied to become a student in Huddersfield.
“The help I got from refugee actions groups was really good,” he said. “I got financial support help to improve my English and to study other subjects.”
He now also holds qualifications in adult social care and graphology and will study at the university for an Msc in Nutrition and Food Sciences.
There he has been helped by international development worker Alan Tobi who encouraged him to set up a Syrian students society this February to meet dozens of others who have moved to the area in sometimes similar situations to himself.
Sleman said: “Moving to Huddersfield was a great choice. There is a strong Kurdish community here but people in the town are so friendly and welcoming so I feel settled here for now, even though I am far from home and in a place with very different weather, to say the least.”
Together with the group he is helping to educate more people about Syrian and Kurdish culture and is leading their most recent campaign to urge the British government to take more action to stop the spread of ISIS militants that are now ransacking parts of northern Iraq in a bid to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state.
Click below to watch a video of their recent protest
Sleman added: “I don’t like to involve myself in politics because of my experiences in Syria but I’m so concerned about what’s going on there and in Iraq, especially now that ISIS are moving close to my home city of Qamishli and the Assad regime has still not been overthrown.
“It’s hard to contact my friends because the government has banned the internet and telephone signals so my dad has to walk near to the Turkish border to get in touch.”
His brother has also fled the country and his sisters have recently joined him in Huddersfield.
“To be reunited with them was a relief but my greatest dream now is that my parents will be able to join us, although it would be very difficult for them to come,” said Sleman.
“I hope that the regime is deposed of so that it is safe to return but in the meantime I hope to study for a PhD and then join a humanitarian group to help others who have been touched by the affects of war.
“Obviously, the ideal for all Kurds is that Kurdistan, which has such a rich culture and history of its own, is formally recognised but at least I would like to see a democratic government installed in Syria with the support of Western states.
“Syria is a beautiful country with beautiful people and I would love to eventually be able to go back there when it is safe, but at the moment it desperately needs help.”