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From Aleppo hostage to Dundee bus driver: Syrian man opens up on his refugee journey

Mohammad Bay is now a bus driver in Dundee after leaving Syria. Pictured left is his damaged apartment block in Aleppo.
Mohammad Bay is now a bus driver in Dundee after leaving Syria. Pictured left is his damaged apartment block in Aleppo.

A refugee who fled war-torn Syria with his wife and children says arriving in Dundee was like being gifted a “real life” again.

Mohammad Bay and his family enjoyed a good life in Aleppo but lost everything when the revolution began in 2011.

They managed to escape to Lebanon but only after surviving missile strikes and regular shelling.

Accountant Mohammad was even abducted and held hostage for two weeks by misinformed rebels fighting the government.

Mohammad’s former flat in Aleppo (top floor on the left).

The family was eventually given the chance to come to Scotland under a refugee scheme run by the United Nations (UN) and arrived on his 33rd birthday in March 2017.

They spoke no English at the time but have quickly settled into life in the Charleston area of the city.

He and wife Sabah Taha now have three children, boys Abdulrahma, 18, and Omar, 14, as well as three-year-old girl Suriana, who was born in Dundee and has no knowledge of Syria.

The 37-year-old now works as a bus driver for Xplore Dundee, having previously forged a fruitful career in accountancy in his homeland.

“I received a real life again on my birthday,” he said.

“It was the chance to start again.

“For my whole life I was 100% sure I would never visit Europe.

Mohammad is now a bus driver, a job he also did in Lebanon.

“I’m from a poor family and the Syrian passport is no good for travel.

“When I found out I was going to the UK I was saying every day ‘this cannot be real’.”

But the gift of safety and peace was real and the family were transported to their new flat in Dundee — a city they had never heard of.

He says they feel “human” in Scotland and notes everyone treats them with respect and as equals, a right they had lost in the six years previous.

Family slept in shower room for safety

Reflecting on an unimaginable struggle to survive, Mohammad said everyone had initially hoped the war would end quickly.

He said: “Much like we see now in Ukraine, thing just get worse.

“I worked so hard to build a good career, we bought a flat — which was not easy in Syria — and we had a good life.

“Life was difficult, we feared for our lives every day and simple things like getting enough food were a challenge – bread became 10 times more expensive.”

The family spent most of the eight months they were in Aleppo during the conflict hunkered down in a basement in their apartment block or cramped inside their fourth floor apartment.

The family would take cover in the shower room (pictured) of their apartment.

The windows and doors of the flat were all damaged from the impact of explosions and all four members of the family were forced to sleep in a tiny shower room — the only space hidden from the street.

Every day was about ensuring they had enough food to survive but things took a turn for the worse one night when Mohammad was confronted by rebels in the street.

Two weeks in an Aleppo jail

The men wrongly believed he was working against the uprising, (when he was in fact a civilian) locked him in a jail cell and stole his watch and all the money he had on him.

His family were left praying for his safety until he was released in the middle of the night after two weeks.

Miles from home and in the dangerous moonlight of Aleppo, Mohammad an as fast as he could through several parks and alleys, avoiding busy streets.

“I was just running, running, running,” an emotional Mohammad said.

The family lived in a shop unit (pictured) in Beirut.

“When I eventually made it home I was covered in mud and when I saw my wife, we both started crying.

“It was then we decided we had to leave, no matter what.”

The family used the little money they had to get Mohammad to neighbouring Lebanon, where millions had already fled.

Missile strike injures family

Already possessing an HGV licence from time working in his family business, he was able to pick up a job as a bus driver but for very poor pay and long hours.

While he worked non-stop to try to fund the journey for his family and pay for somewhere big enough for them to live, things got worse back in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city.

A surface-to-surface missile had struck an area near their apartment with the impact overturning a table, hitting his son and mother-in-law, who luckily escaped with minor injuries.

Mohammad agreed to lease an empty shop in Beirut which contained just one room and a small toilet.

The family made it over the border and after some time, registered as refugees with the UN.

Villages near Aleppo, such as Kfar Derian, pictured, have been destroyed during the war. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)

Technically homeless, they lived in the capital for around four years.

They were safe but life was nothing compared to the one they enjoyed in pre-war Syria.

Mohammad says they felt “second class” compared to locals, some of whom resented the arrival of an estimated 1.5m Syrians fleeing the war — a figure which means the country has the highest proportion of refugees anywhere in the world.

‘I feel like I have two cities now’

A phone call out of the blue one day would change their lives completely — they were told they would be taken to a new mysterious country called Scotland.

Just months later they were boarding a plane to the far-off city of Glasgow and now five years on, Mohammad says he will always be grateful for the welcome his family has received.

The move has offered him many luxuries he had only dreamed of before, including travel to anywhere in the world using his new UK refugee travel document from the Home Office.

Mohammad has lived in Dundee since 2017. Kim Cessford / DCT Media.

He had not seen his seriously ill father for five years but managed to see him in Turkey just months before he died.

Dundee and Aleppo share little in common but surprisingly Mohammad says the weather can be familiar.

He said: “Scotland and Syria are very far away from each other but actually, the winters are a little bit the same; cloudy and cold.

“You cannot guarantee sun here in Scotland though, even in the summer.

“Of course we miss Syria, it is our home and where we are from.

“But I feel like I have two cities now; one here and one in Syria.

“When my daughter is a little older, I think I will tell her the story about why she is here.”

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