Hamam is grasping his UK opportunities with both hands
Like other teenage boys in Syria, Hamam Mahrat knew the day would come when he would be called upon to join the national army. He knew this meant he would become part of the civil war which had raged in his country since 2011, and he knew it would involve taking innocent lives. And so the determined young man, then just 17, did the one thing he could to escape this unbearable fate – he left the only country he had ever known.
Hamam, now 21, explained: “There was no way I was going to join the army, so my family and I had to leave without looking back. My mum, my younger brother and my little sister fled to Lebanon where we lived for two years. It was very hard; for five or six months I couldn’t stop thinking about my life in Syria, my friends and my studies there.”
He added that relations between Syrians and the Lebanese are strained due to historical conflict between the two countries; this made his family’s stay there very difficult. “You can’t really work there if you’re Syrian and the cost of studying is too expensive,” he said. “So it was very tough for all of us.”
Happily, the lives of the Mahrat family were soon set to be changed forever. Due to their highly vulnerable position in Lebanon, they were chosen by the United Nations to benefit from its Syrian Resettlement Programme. Through this initiative, they were told, they could all be relocated to England to start a new life. Hamam said: “I can’t tell you how I excited I was. We knew how many opportunities there were in the UK and we were so grateful to be chosen.”
Over the course of a year, Hamam and his family underwent preparation for their big move, which included having medical assessments and taking classes about British life. Once all the necessary boxes had been ticked, the Mahrats were relocated to Ipswich in Suffolk in September 2016 with Suffolk Refugee Support (SRS) providing arrival, resettlement and integration services.
With funding from the Building Better Opportunities (BBO) programme, he was given support to set up his own business, selling falafels in the town’s market and elsewhere. He said: “I met another Syrian guy and we tried to think of something that no-one else was doing in Ipswich. We came up with the idea of falafels, and the help of SRS was fantastic.”
Through the BBO programme, which is funded by the European Social Fund and the National Lottery through the Big Lottery Fund, Suffolk Refugee Support guided Hamam through the process of setting up a small catering company. This included creating a business plan, preparing for health and safety requirements, identifying marketing avenues and sourcing funding.
The Building Better Opportunities programme is managed by training and skills provider The Consultancy Home Counties Ltd (TCHC). Indeed, TCHC itself was also instrumental in Hamam’s
journey, putting him on its six-day Practical Skills for Business Course. Hamam said: “It was the first time I have ever enjoyed studying! The course facilitator, Paul St John Bennett, was amazing; he gave me so much support and we became good friends.”
The course gave Hamam vital information about the legal requirements of setting up a business, helped him get to grips with the tax implications and talked him through his operational plan.
Paul said: “Hamam has the personality, commercial acumen and, most importantly, the drive to make a success of his business – and he makes great falafels! Learning should be fun, and Hamam added to the great atmosphere. He was always willing to help others make their business dreams come true, too.”
Thanks to the support of TCHC and Suffolk Refugee Support, Syrian Falafel was born last summer. “My mum was so proud of me on the day we opened. She kept crying and hugging me when I was trying to serve the customers!” Hamam said.
While Syrian Falafel’s stall in Ipswich is closed during the winter months, Hamam regularly travels to indoor venues like Woodbridge’s Community Hall, much to the delight of his loyal customers. He is also exploring the possibility of catering for events and offering deliveries to local businesses.
What’s more, Hamam has also secured a part-time job with Suffolk Refugee Support as a bilingual support worker, helping others in his position. He explained: “I go with them to doctor’s appointments to translate for them, attend Jobcentre interviews with them and help them with assessments.”
Ultimately, Hamam says, he hopes to go to university to study Cyber Security.
He said: “I’m so grateful for our life here in Ipswich, I’ve got lots of new friends and my family are all doing really well. It’s hard not to look back at our old life in Syria but we are not going to waste the opportunities we’ve been given. I hope that people like me will show that the negative stereotypes about Syrian refugees aren’t true.”
Employment and Training Advice Worker Jodi Peck said: "Since arriving in Ipswich, Hamam has really dedicated himself to succeeding and getting his life started again. He has focused on improving his English, starting his business, gaining part-time employment and engaging in local social activities.
“He has also been really supportive to other individual Syrians resettling in the community. It's a real treat to have fresh falafel now available on our doorstep and we hope Hamam’s business will grow and succeed."
TCHC Chairman Dale Morgan said: “It is wonderful to hear how well Hamam has done since arriving in Ipswich from Lebanon. It’s clear that, whatever he turns his hand to, he will be a success, and I’m delighted that TCHC and Suffolk Refugee Support have been able to support him.”