WIGAN, England — When Mais, a 39-year-old pharmacist from Syria, arrived in Wigan, a windswept former mining town in northern England, she felt her search for sanctuary was over. She and her youngest son, Ouby, 2, had finally found safety. But saving him came at a price: She had to leave her other two boys, both under 10, with her sister in Turkey, not knowing when she would see them again.
“I couldn’t take all of them. I felt I would take them to their death,” she said, recalling her dangerous and complicated journey to the U.K., where she arrived nine months ago. She spent 10 days in the hold of an overcrowded boat in choppy waters, traveling from Turkey to Italy. They were 900 people in the hold, she said, but no toilets. Every now and then, the traffickers threw tins of tuna or sardines down through a hatch. Ouby was still breast-feeding.
“I prayed to my God, if he wants to take me, take me, but keep my son safe,” she said, sitting in the kitchen of her small public housing unit provided the local government, with Ouby by her side.
By the time Mais arrived in Italy, Ouby had stopped eating. He screamed in his sleep. They joined relatives in France and received medical care. Instead of staying there or moving to Germany and Sweden, as many other Syrian refugees have done, she decided to take one more risk and try to enter Britain using a fake passport she purchased online. One reason was her fear of anti-Muslim sentiment in France, where she said a stranger assaulted her in the street, kicked her and tried to pull off her headscarf. She was also concerned that wearing a hijab would hinder her job opportunities and education there.
“People told me the U.K. is respectful of people’s religion,” she said.
Britain has attracted criticism for accepting far fewer Syrian refugees than its European partners. About 5,000 Syrians have been granted asylum in the U.K. since the violence started in their homeland in 2011. Another 216 were resettled here under a special program for vulnerable people that Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to open up to 20,000 more Syrians over the next five years. Germany, meanwhile, has registered almost 1 million refugees this year and is expecting more, according to a newspaper reports. Sweden has routinely granted Syrians permanent residence since 2013, allowing them to work and bring their family members, though it has announced it won’t continue to accept as many refugees.
Yet for some — especially middle-class Syrians with good English skills — Britain remains an attractive option. Several Syrian refugees here point out its liberal tradition, multiculturalism and religious tolerance as well as what they perceive as better job opportunities. They see England as their best shot to rebuild a comfortable and productive life like the one they had in Syria before the war.
When Mais looks back to her old life in Syria, her soft voice takes on a note of disbelief, as if recounting a dream. “We had a good life,” she said, talking with her eyes closed. “We were not rich, but we worked and had everything.”
She lived in a village near Aleppo with her husband and two sons when the war broke out in 2011. They thought it would end quickly, but it got worse. Their pharmacy was bombed several times, she said, and they moved in with relatives in Aleppo. Their daily life involved dodging bombs, snipers and soldiers battling over the city while trying to find food for the children. Then she discovered she was pregnant again.
“In the middle of all these horrible things, it’s not good to be pregnant. We tried to find a safe place, but everywhere there was death and bombs,” she recalled.
Ouby was born prematurely. Mais feared for her baby’s health as her own deteriorated because of the constant stress. She took her three children to Turkey, where they stayed with her sister, while her husband tried to reach Northern Europe and find sanctuary for the family. He got stuck in Greece, however, unable to cross the border to wealthier and more welcoming countries. So she risked the journey.
Despite the wary attitude of Britain’s conservative government and election promises to be tough on immigration, many ordinary citizens have given the new arrivals a warm welcome. Thousands of Britons have expressed an interest in fostering refugee children. Families have offered to take refugees into their homes. In cities like London, the population is already very mixed, making it easier for new arrivals to integrate.
“I like the diversity,” said Milad, a 29-year-old dentist from Damascus who now lives in London. Like Mais, he preferred not to use his last name, fearing reprisals against relatives and friends in Syria. “Here you don’t feel you are foreign. It’s not like you are the only foreigner. The British are very well minded. They are — what do you say? — humanist.”
Milad arrived in Britain in late 2014, succeeding on his fifth attempt to hide in a truck crossing the Eurotunnel from Calais, France. While Mais is still waiting for a decision on her asylum application, Milad has been granted five years’ leave to remain. He hopes to eventually requalify as a dentist.
Another pharmacist, Ammar Assa, 33, in Liverpool, said he also managed to board a truck from Calais — a particularly arduous feat, since he walks on crutches. His pharmacy in Damascus was bombed by the Syrian army while he was inside, he said, and shrapnel from the blast remains lodged in his leg and chest. He, too, has been granted five years to remain, and he harbors hopes similar to Mais’ and Milad’s: study, requalify and resume his profession.
“The people are friendly. It’s a free country, and for education it’s the No. 1 in the world,” Assa said. To show his gratitude to the British, he volunteers in a local soup kitchen for the homeless. Some of his friends fear an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment after the recent Paris attacks, he said, but he has not felt any hostility.
According to a recent Ipsos Group poll, attitudes toward refugees in Britain have remained largely similar since the attacks. Fifty-four percent of Britons surveyed said they have “great sympathy” for the refugees, up 3 percentage points since October. However, 81 percent of the respondents said they think terrorists are posing as refugees to get into Britain, up from 72 percent in October. Only 27 percent of Britons now believe the country has the room to take in refugees, compared with 35 percent in October.
However those who do want to help cite Britain’s long tradition of accepting refugees.
“We don’t stand idly by,” Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk, who belongs to an interfaith group in support of refugees in London, said via email. “This country welcomed our forebears, and we must do the same for others who need that kindness.”
Yet Mais said strangers sometimes shout insults at her. Everyday life is not easy. While she is waiting for her asylum claim to be processed, she is not allowed to work and has to live on a modest weekly allowance of 35 pounds ($53), intended to cover food, transport, her phone and Ouby’s diapers. On the other hand, doctors and caseworkers have treated her kindly, she said, and she receives free English classes.
Her main worry is her family. Her husband has made it to Calais and is trying to reach Britain. Her other two sons, with whom she speaks by phone, don’t understand why they cannot be with her. She recalled how her eldest refused to speak to her for a while. “He said, ‘You’re not a good mother, and our father is not a good father, because you left us,’” she said. Her middle son, though, texts her dozens of emoticons each day as a reminder of his love.
If she is granted asylum, Mais said, she will bring the boys to Britain. Until then, all she can do is wait. On her phone, she scrolled through rows and rows of yellow smiley faces from her son.
“I want to learn. I want to work. I want to make something, and my children will learn from me and will also work,” she said. “I just want to be a good human and a good mother.”