These men fled war in Syria to Ukraine. Now they’ve fled again.

These men fled war in Syria to Ukraine. Now they’ve fled again.

Updated: 3 months, 14 hours, 28 minutes, 37 seconds ago

Written by Megan Specia

In a small church hall last spring in East London, about two dozen people who had fled the war in Ukraine drank tea and shared lunch as they tried to meet members of their new community.

Among them were two young men, Abdul Safwa and Muhsen Hamed, who smiled and chatted away with the group in Russian and snippets of Ukrainian as they shared their harrowing experiences.

Muhsen Hamed and Abdul Safwa, two Syrians who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, attend an event in London for people displaced, May 14, 2022. “I still don’t know if I can stay here or not,” said Safwa, alluding to his asylum claim. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Muhsen Hamed and Abdul Safwa, two Syrians who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, attend an event in London for people displaced, May 14, 2022. “I still don’t know if I can stay here or not,” said Safwa, alluding to his asylum claim. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

But unlike the others gathered for the lunch, this was the second time the men had been displaced: first from their home country, Syria, and then from Ukraine, where they had spent the past decade living in limbo.

“I still don’t know if I can stay here or not,” said Safwa, detailing how they had both applied for asylum in Britain. “How will they act with us? Will they treat us like Ukrainians or Syrians?”

More than 7 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded it in late February, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The vast majority were Ukrainian nationals eligible for a plan for temporary resettlement in Britain through the Homes for Ukrainians visa program. European Union countries have offered temporary, visa-free protections for those who have fled the war.

Muhsen Hamed, a Syrian who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, at a library in London, Sept. 21, 2022. Hamed is trying to improve his English by reading books like Sherlock Holmes. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Muhsen Hamed, a Syrian who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, at a library in London, Sept. 21, 2022. Hamed is trying to improve his English by reading books like Sherlock Holmes. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

But among those who fled were also people such as Safwa and Hamed whose status falls into a gray area, and whose search for a safe and prosperous place to build new lives has been complicated. And in some countries, including Britain, they receive more limited support than Ukrainian citizens who fled the same war as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives.

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Without Ukrainian citizenship, the men were ineligible to apply for the visa programs that offer temporary resettlement to those who fled the war in Ukraine. Instead, they surreptitiously entered Britain through Ireland — which has allowed for visa-free travel for those fleeing the war — and then applied for asylum.

Muhsen Hamed traces his route to Britain from Odesa, Ukraine, on a floor map at the Maritime Museum in London, Sept. 21, 2022. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Muhsen Hamed traces his route to Britain from Odesa, Ukraine, on a floor map at the Maritime Museum in London, Sept. 21, 2022. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Shabia Mantoo, a global spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, said the phenomenon of people fleeing more than one conflict in this way — known as multiple displacement — is incredibly challenging and increasingly common as the number of people displaced by war continues to rise globally. “It’s a really precarious situation,” she said.

Although Mantoo did not weigh in on Safwa’s and Hamed’s cases, she said that in their responses to Ukrainian nationals fleeing the war, European countries have shown what they can do to help.

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Muhsen Hamed, a Syrian who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, works out in London, Sept. 21, 2022. Not allowed to work in

Muhsen Hamed, a Syrian who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, works out in London, Sept. 21, 2022. Not allowed to work in England , Hamed spends part of his free time at a local gym. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Attitudes and messaging toward other asylum-seekers, meanwhile, have often been less welcoming.

“I think what Ukraine has shown us is that when there is a political commitment, a humane approach can prevail and refugees can be hosted,” Mantoo said. Countries around the world, including Britain, have been sending billions of dollars’ worth of aid to Ukraine to help it fight Russia.

Safwa and Hamed were students in Ukraine when Syria’s civil war began in 2011, and they chose not to return home out of fear that they would be conscripted.

Abdul Safwa, a Syrian who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, next to the River Thames in London, Sept. 21, 2022. “They told me, ‘You can’t work,’” he said. “They give us this hotel, they give us food, but why? Just let us work.” (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Abdul Safwa, a Syrian who fled Ukraine at the start of the war, next to the River Thames in London, Sept. 21, 2022. “They told me, ‘You can’t work,’” he said. “They give us this hotel, they give us food, but why? Just let us work.” (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

Hamed had been studying at the National Maritime Academy in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa since 2009, in the hopes of becoming a sailor and then a captain. When war began in Syria, he applied for asylum in Ukraine.

But he and Safwa, who became friends in Odesa, found themselves living in limbo. They never received full refugee status in Ukraine, which would have allowed them to eventually become citizens, but, rather, were granted the more limited “humanitarian protection” status.

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As a result, Hamed could not get the necessary hours of experience on a boat to become a captain. They were able to work but could not leave the country, even to see family members who had also fled Syria. And then, when Russia invaded Ukraine, they found themselves refugees once more.

FILE — Thousands queue to board trains bound for Poland in Lviv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

FILE — Thousands queue to board trains bound for Poland in Lviv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

“My family told me, ‘We saw what happened in Syria. Do not stay,’” Hamed said. So, days after the war began Feb. 24, he and four friends boarded a packed train headed west toward the Polish border. Eventually, they crossed it by car.
Safwa had been living in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, when the war broke out. He had spent years trying to restart his life, establishing a successful tourism business.

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That all evaporated overnight, and he knew he had to leave, fearing a prolonged conflict in Ukraine.

“We know Russia from what it did to Syria. It’s not new to us,” Safwa said. “They don’t care about the civilian people, who is in the army, who is a civilian. They bomb everybody. I realised this immediately, and I made my decision. I decided I would escape.”

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He drove to Poland with neighbours the day after the invasion began. Then he heard from Hamed.

FILE — Ukrainians clean up debris after a residential building was hit by missiles in the country’s capital of Kyiv, Feb. 25, 2022. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

FILE — Ukrainians clean up debris after a residential building was hit by missiles in the country’s capital of Kyiv, Feb. 25, 2022. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

Together, the men eventually decided to travel on to Britain. They thought it would offer them the best chance to start over because they both speak some English and have family connections in the country. But to get there, they had to circumvent visa requirements, which is why they traveled first to Ireland, which had looser restrictions for refugees from the war in Ukraine. Then they crossed the open border into Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Hamed and Safwa applied for asylum when they arrived in England, in mid-March.

“I told them I don’t have anywhere to go back to,” Hamed said of the immigration agents with Britain’s Home Office handling his asylum request. “I wanted to apply for asylum because I don’t have any home anywhere.”

The men know of a handful of other Syrians who took a similar route to Britain from Ukraine. Initially, the Home Office had allowed only Ukrainians living in Britain to sponsor family members fleeing the war. But in the spring, it introduced a second program, one that allows Ukrainians who do not have family members in Britain to be sponsored by a resident and lets them remain in the country for up to three years.

The Home Office is responsible for Britain’s asylum system and has increasingly taken action to stamp out the use of irregular routes into the country by those fleeing war — including trying to impose a number of policies that have been criticized by human rights groups and experts in international asylum norms.

A plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda has been denounced by the UN refugee agency and challenged in Britain’s high court.

The Home Office declined to weigh in on the particulars of Safwa’s and Hamed’s cases, as is its policy, but it pointed to the government’s existing policies for Ukrainian citizens seeking temporary refuge in Britain.

“People should claim asylum in the first country they reach or, for those in need of our protection, using one of our safe and legal routes to come to the UK,” the Home Office said in a statement.

Asylum-seekers like Safwa and Hamed often linger in Britain’s asylum system, awaiting a decision on claims that could take months or even years to resolve.

Until then, they are housed in hostels or hotels, provided with food and given 8 pounds per week, or about $9, to buy basic essentials and pay for public transportation. But they are unable to work, something Safwa and Hamed say they are eager to do.

“They told me, ‘You can’t work,’” Safwa said. “They give us this hotel, they give us food, but why? Just let us work.”

For now, they spend their days taking English classes, visiting the gym and getting familiar with London. Hamed has been reading Sherlock Holmes books to improve his English and often takes walks along the River Thames near the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. He still dreams of becoming a captain.

“Because I am a sailor, and I wish to one day work in this job,” he said of his frequent visits. “So when I visit the museum, it makes me a little bit happier.”

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