A decade after Syrian refugee Hassan Akkad made his perilous journey to reach the UK, he has finally secured citizenship but can't turn his back on the experience that shaped his life.
From being blacklisted and tortured in Syria to fleeing to Europe in a sinking dinghy and losing all his belongings, the brave English teacher became an icon of hope to many after releasing emotive footage of his plight.
Since he has been in the UK, Akkad has repeatedly hit the headlines through his campaigns for change, most notably during the Covid-19 lockdown. Working as a hospital cleaner, he posted a powerful video message to former prime minister Boris Johnson that prompted the government to make a U-turn on the policy of excluding immigrant NHS workers from the bereavement compensation scheme.
'My heart is still back in Syria'
Akkad's work to raise awareness of Syria and the plight of refugees includes his efforts as part of the team behind the documentary Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which won a Bafta in 2017.
Earlier this week, a film on which he was associate producer called The Swimmers was released on Netflix, telling the story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini, two sisters with Olympic dreams who were forced to flee Syria.
The film showcases mobile phone footage that Akkad took on his own similarly perilous journey.
“All the work I have been doing over the past seven years has revolved around my country and the people displaced as a result of the crisis,” he says.
“My heart is still back there. Sadly, Syria is not getting the attention it was back then because there are so many other tragedies around the world, from Ukraine to the pandemic.
“Talking to my friends back home, they think the situation is worse than it was during all the bombings. Society is collapsing with over 90 per cent of people under the poverty line.
“The struggle is real, especially in Idlib and Aleppo. We have got millions of people living in camps who are urban refugees. From gaining access to schools, education, mental health help, legal support, they all need help.”
Real-life refugee stories help to raise awareness
Akkad talked of the importance of highlighting real-life stories to bring the plight of Syrians to the fore through documentaries, written articles and other means, such as films like The Swimmers.
“Our biggest problem is lack of knowledge,” he says. “Most ordinary Britons have not met a migrant. People have got to learn. The crisis is overwhelming.
“When you put a face on the crisis you can really help and have empathy.”
Now, as cholera sweeps across his homeland, the Bafta award-winning filmmaker is using charity work to help raise awareness of the struggles faced by his compatriots.
When he takes to the altar at Westminster’s St Margaret’s Church to make an emotive speech next week at the Hands Up Foundation's annual Sing for Syrians carol service, it will be to ask for support for those most at risk of contracting the disease.
“This event is so important — it is for a life-saving cause. Syria needs help with the cholera outbreak,” he said. “Hospitals are desperate.”
With a host of guests including John McCarthy, Britain's longest-held hostage in Lebanon, and actors Julie Christie, Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, the event is set to raise vital funds to keep health clinics open.
For Akkad's part, he also expects that the evening will rekindle childhood memories.
“I love working with Hands Up. I love speaking at their events. It is an honour to take part because I’m Syrian,” he told The National.
“My life back home, before everything changed, saw my family and I drive to the Christian area of Damascus and look at the Christmas lights and decorations and drive around them.
“They were just stunning to see. We don’t celebrate Christmas but we loved seeing the lights. To speak at this Christmas event will take me back to that moment.”
Getting British citizenship a dream come true
When Akkad was recently awarded British citizenship, it represented a restoration of freedoms — such as planning a trip from the UK to visit his family in the UAE — that most people take for granted.
“Getting my British citizenship was one of the best feelings I have ever had in my life,” he said.
“It’s given me a sense of security which I have lacked for a decade. I am blacklisted in Syria. I can never go back, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. You should not need a document to belong somewhere.
“When I got that certificate, it felt so emotional. Britain is finally my home. We have so many problems but, for someone who is stateless, it really meant so much. Just the feeling of relief that I can finally settle down.”
Calls for UK to better tackle migrant crisis
Reflecting on his citizenship, however, he can't help feeling saddened by the hazardous situations faced by thousands of others.
With more than 45,000 people having crossed the Channel in small boats to reach the UK this year, Akkad says Britain needs to deal with the crisis more effectively.
Earlier this year, he criticised the Home Office’s plans to send migrants to Rwanda, labelling it an “ethical and moral failure”.
“The UK government is not serious about solving the migrant crisis,” he said. “The petrol bomb attack at Dover was heartbreaking. We need to have a conversation and look at proper solutions. You can’t stop migrants coming. The government’s rhetoric is so dangerous.
“People will always come and risk their lives. It is sadly what happens. It is very harmful when people describe migrants arriving as an invasion — it gives the green light to people to treat migrants badly.
“British people should be concerned and should be allowed to ask questions and have a conversation and find solutions.”
In 2020, Akkad's face was projected on to the White Cliffs of Dover as part of a plea for compassion for asylum seekers.
Filmmaker became hospital cleaner during the pandemic
His pandemic campaigning, in collaboration with the group Led by Donkeys, received 5 million views and thousands of likes and retweets as people voiced their support.
Next week, when he becomes a guest of honour at the candlelit carol service, Akkad hopes to do all he can to help raise £120,000 ($143,526) for Syria, where there are 35,500 suspected cholera cases and almost 100 deaths.
“I know what the people of Syria are going through,” he said.
“That was me once. I still have friends and relatives in Syria. There was no question of me not helping and doing this to raise awareness.
“Without people’s help, it is not possible to give Syria the aid it needs because, even after all this time, Syria does still matter.”
Tickets to the Singing for Syrians carol service at St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, London, at 6.30pm on Thursday, December 1 are available here. Hands Up Foundation UK is also raising money via its Christmas Match Funding Campaign 2022 in which philanthropists match pound for pound donations made between December 1 and 8.