Mariam Amiri is still struck by fear every time she hears the sound of a helicopter. The noise reminds her of the time she and her family spent in refugee camps after fleeing the war in Syria, with only the flimsy canvas of their tent acting as protection from the falling bombs.
“When I hear it, it says to me and my family: ‘I’m here to kill you all’. I used to take my son and smother him for fear of losing him,” she recalls.
My children are learning and they are safe. But I can’t help the flashbacks that take me to the time before I was hereMARIAM AMIRI, Syrian refugee
“We used to always wonder when our time was coming, who was going to die, what tent were they going to bomb? When the bombs came down you smelled it in the air, you saw people’s body parts thrown into the air, houses coming down with people inside them.
“You heard people’s screams of fear, pain, from people who lost loved ones. You used to see parents gathering their children’s body parts so they could bury them.”
The 23-year-old’s deeply upsetting personal account of the war in Syria is all the more remarkable as she is telling it live on stage, in front of an audience of around 100 people. Alongside her husband Chadi and their two young children, Mariam became one of the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Britain 18 months ago and has decided that it is time for her story to be heard.
The couple were among five refugees who volunteered to share their experiences at a special event in Airdrie in North Lanarkshire last week.
The evening at Airdrie Town Hall was organised by the local council, which has so far resettled 133 Syrian refugees in each of the area’s main towns.
For the Syrians taking part, it was a chance to thank the people who welcomed them into the community and tell their stories about coming to Scotland.
“Thanks to Scotland and the generosity of the Scottish people and the mercy of God, I am [safe] here,” Mariam says, her voice choked with emotion.
“I live in a beautiful home that makes me feel safe. The children go to the local nursery – they are learning and integrating. Every time I take my children to nursery I can’t help but feel happy.
“My children are learning and they are safe. But I can’t help the flashbacks that take me to the time before I was here. I remember the kids that are still in Syria and in the camps. In two months’ time I will be giving birth to my third child. I have my birthing plan set up already, but can’t help thinking of those women that have their children in the streets or under the bombs.”
Mariam’s husband Chadi is lucky to have escaped Syria with his life. He recalls how he was kidnapped near Damascus by government forces and taken to a detention centre, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured.
“They attacked me like wild animals, they did not leave one bit of my body not bruised,” he says. “They then brought a bucket of water which they threw over me and placed me on top of something like a metal bed.
“Then they started to Taser me. From the pain and fear I fell to the ground, but they started hitting me with a cable. I could not move. My body was not responding.”
Chadi was eventually released after his family paid a ransom and is now living with his family in Scotland. He hopes to shine a light on what is happening in Syria’s detention centres by telling his story to human rights groups.
The event also heard from Nazira Hijazi, 46, and her son Badr, 11, who has drawn a series of pictures about their life in Syria before and after the war. She was caught in a chemical weapons attack and was lucky to survive. A dozen members of her family were killed.
While almost all of the refugees speak through an interpreter, Nazira’s other son Yassine, 18, delivers his speech in English. The family has only lived in Coatbridge for 18 months, but he already has a noticeable Scottish accent.
After the family left Syria for Lebanon, he was forced to take whatever work he could find to earn money rather than attending school. “Many people did not want us there and they made threats and abused us,” he says.
“One night they threw firecrackers that sounded like real explosives at our house. Having difficulty getting work and facing racism from the Lebanese made life very difficult.”
Occasionally he would return to Syria to meet up with other members of his family, but the trips carried great risks and he would often have to shelter from the bombs.
“I have watched from a distance as buildings were blown up by missiles fired from heavy artillery. It is very different from watching it in the movies,” he says. “I remember looking out of my window one night and seeing the red light of a rocket travelling up the street just outside.”
Although Yassine admits that he did not know much about Scotland before being resettled, he says the family feels “very welcome” and has not had any bad experiences with racism.
“I hope to attend college in the future and train in engineering. One day when there is peace, I hope to return to my country and meet up with my friends and family,” he says with a smile.