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.