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Meet the 12-year-old Syrian refugee who fled conflict and ended up in a top UK school

The schoolboy on escaping persecution and his new life at an independent school in Edinburgh.

It is now four years since Mohammad Murad was forced out of his home in Damascus. Four years spent moving from region to region in desperate pursuit of a safe life with his family.

Still just 12-years-old, he now sits in a classroom in Edinburgh, resplendent in the uniform of one of the country’s top independent schools.

He is smartly dressed in his blazer and tie and though he only began learning English a matter of months ago, his manners are impeccable and he has a twinkling natural charm rarely found in a boy of his age.


All photos: Sandy Thin

George Heriot’s School, at the heart of the Scottish capital, took the decision this summer to offer Mohammad and two other Syrian child refugees full bursaries. The competitive school was founded in 1628 on the charitable basis that it would offer a high-quality free education to “faitherless bairns” (any child who has lost a parent) – a commitment upheld by the school until this day.

It is clear that Mohammad is settling in well, an impressive feat given the trauma he has escaped, and considering that, until August, he had been out of education for 18 months. Plus, when he touched down on Scottish soil in June, he didn’t speak a word of English.

To help with their English, each of the refugees have been given iPads by the school to assist with translation. But it is clear that already Mohammad is keen to prove his new language skills whenever possible.

“When I first arrived, I had good hopes,” he begins tentatively. “I was a bit scared, I didn’t know what was waiting, what the classes or the other students would be like. But I liked my teacher very much.”

It’s hard to comprehend quite how bizarre an experience it must be for him. In his year living in Domiz, one of the largest refugee camps in northern Iraq, the only schooling he received was in small caravans set up by the UN. His lessons were more likely to involve landmine safety than Newton’s laws of motion.

Now, learning in the school’s historic Old Building, looking out onto Edinburgh Castle, Mohammad says that for the first time since the conflict erupted in 2011, he feels safe, rooted, without the imminent threat of upheaval that has been with him for almost half his life.

Even now though, there is a lingering trauma he cannot totally escape: “I still have this feeling sometimes of ‘what if the war still came behind me?’ Everywhere my family moved, from Damascus to Al-Hasakah to Iraq, the conflict soon followed after. What if it followed here?”

In June, the UN refugee agency facilitated the move of Mohammad’s family to Scotland, due to the fact that his younger sister is disabled. They were helped to settle and put in touch with the school by Edinburgh Council as part of the Scottish government’s commitment to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

The George Heriot’s Principal, Cameron Wyllie, says that the process of selecting the recipients of the bursaries proved to be just as tough for the interviewers as it may have been for the interviewees.

“It was very, very moving and humbling really,” he tells me. “The whole attitude of the parents was repeatedly that they understood that their child might not get a place, but that if they did that was wonderful, but if not it was fine too because it was going to go to another refugee child.”

In the end, the process was so difficult that the school decided to take on an extra student, having initially only intended to take on two Syrians. Clifton Hall, another independent day school, just outside of Edinburgh, also agreed to take on another two of the interviewed children. 

Mohammad was the first student to be seen by George Heriot’s and Wyllie was immediately struck by his remarkable resilience. “He had hardly any English at the time but he was keen to demonstrate that he wanted to come here and work hard,” he says. “His mother told us everything that had happened and it was horrible, but it was clear that Mohammad had got through it all by smiling and running and playing football.”

He was only seven-years-old when the civil war broke out in Damascus, living with his parents in Kafr Sousa in the south of the city. At that age, he couldn’t begin to comprehend the politics of the situation, but the fear and brutality he felt during the early conflict lingers with him.

“I was outside a mosque with my mum and dad,” he recalls. “There was a demonstration, clashes. The police were fighting with demonstrators and I remember blood.”

As the city became more and more dangerous to live in, he fled with his family to Al-Hasakah in northern Syria, where much of the Kurdish population lives, and then shortly afterwards to Iraq. There he met other refugees, many of whom had lost friends and family in Damascus.

His journey through Syria and Iraq and ultimately to Scotland has been arduous but it is clear that Mohammad has not let it change his character. Despite everything he has retained the cheeky wit you would expect of any other 12-year-old boy.

The school’s bursaries have been named after Dmitri Dulkanovic, one of 27 Serbian refugees that the school took on during the First World War. After a devastating defeat at the hands of Germany, the Serbian boys, much like Mohammad and his family, moved desperately in search of safety from the war before they were finally transported to Scotland by the Allies’ fleet.

While debates continue over whether independent schools can be attributed charitable status, Wyllie welcomes the new charity regulator test, introduced in 2010, arguing that for Heriot’s, “the charitable element isn’t an add-on, but the central purpose of the school’s being”.

The school’s commitment to scholarships and bursaries costs the George Heriot’s Foundation £900,000 a year.

For the other students at the schools, welcoming Mohammad and the other Syrians has been a delight. Mohammad’s teacher, Val Clark, says that pupils continually approach her to say, “Mrs Clark, we’re so lucky to have Mohammad in our class.”

She tells me: “He’s clearly a popular boy, and the more his language improves, the more his sense of humour is evident.”

For him, the Scottish curriculum is a nice alternative to his old schooling in Syria. “Back home, I would have a lot of homework every day, I would have to memorise four pages every day and had exams every day,” he says. “Compared to that, Heriot’s has been much more relaxed. In Syria we were judged only according to our marks, but here it’s more about the students themselves.”

Though only 12-years-old, Mohammad already has career ambitions. When asked what his hopes for the future are, he smiles broadly and says, “I will be a doctor. I want to help people.”

Sandy Thin is a journalist at News Associates. He tweets @SandyThin.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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