Ahmad and Amjad are two young Syrian refugees who have travelled far from their homes. Now living in Glasgow, they have opened their homes to couchsurfers, hosting travellers from all over the world, swapping stories with them. Brietta Hague tells the story of their departure from war-torn Syria, their journey across Europe, and of how they have adapted to new lives in Scotland. 

Like best mates anywhere, Ahmad and Amjad tease each other constantly about anything from bad haircuts to annoying personal habits. Best friends can get away with cheeky banter because of what they share; secret languages, memories of school, nights out drinking and dancing.

Ahmad and Amjad share a war.

Ahmad has been tortured, shot at and bombed. Amjad bears the scar of a sniper’s bullet that ripped into his throat and almost killed his entire family. At 21 and 23, these young men are survivors. As Syrian refugees, they may also be the world’s most unlikely couchsurfing hosts. Ahmad and Amjad regularly open their new home for free to travellers from around the world.

“So far we’ve had people from sixteen countries visit here,” Amjad says proudly and counts off the nationalities on his fingers.

“People from Egypt, Mexico, USA, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, England, Belarus, India, Malaysia, Canada, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Ireland. The traveller from Belarus was the most interesting.’

‘Couchsurfing’ started in 2008 as a travel website and pre-dates Airbnb. It allows young travellers to connect with locals and crash in their homes. The idea is to ‘surf’ someone’s couch for a night or two. You can swap stories, share food and sometimes talk of more confronting issues.

Many of Ahmad and Amjad’s guests know little of the war, or that their refugee hosts have suffered more in their short lives than most could fathom.

Many of Ahmad and Amjad’s guests know little of the war, or that their refugee hosts have suffered more in their short lives than most could fathom.

I’m meeting the two friends at Amjad’s tiny council flat on the edge of Glasgow. It’s known as a rough suburb in an infamously tough city. The whole palette of the town is a smoky grey and almost everyone I see in their neighbourhood wears a hoodie. Ahmad is pale and softly spoken, propped up against a couch drinking thick Arabic coffee.

I ask him if the Belarusian was the most interesting because she understood dictatorship.

“Maybe. She was young and knew a lot about politics. People have ideas about wars but what’s happened in Syria is very different. There are people in Syria who should be humans but they are not. You cannot imagine what they can do.”

When Ahmad tells couchsurfers he took six months to get from Syria to the United Kingdom, some ask if he’s been on a backpacking adventure.

“An American girl began crying when I told her what’s happening in Syria. She had no idea about the war or refugees fleeing to Europe. She was 21 years old. She told me, ‘How has this happened and I know nothing about this?’ Some didn’t know Syria was in the Middle East. Some think the Middle East is one large Muslim Arabic country with the same language, culture, and everything. A guy asked me ‘How’s the weather in Syria? It is in Africa, right?’ It’s ignorance.”

The guests who hear the full story take away something they never forget.

A soldier walking among rubble in Aleppo, Syria. Image: Voice of America [CC]

In 2011, Ahmad was studying fine arts at a university in Syria. His favourite subjects were painting and sculpture. In both his first and second year, he found himself at the top of the class. Then the war began.

The Assad regime began detaining men and boys to force them into the army. Ahmad says he was tortured brutally for three days at a detention centre.

“They kill for nothing, like it’s easy,” he tells me. “But do you know there are things worse than killing someone?”

The detention centre was just the start of his ordeal. Over the next two years his house was bombed, he lost friends and family, and he was shot in the ribs, the bullet missing his heart by a few centimetres. After he was injured in a barrel bomb that killed three of his friends, his father suggested he flee.

“We young men were targets. My father didn’t say I must leave, as the way is dangerous. But we knew I had to go. And one family member must be abroad to send back money.”

Ahmad’s body is riddled with scars. There’s a mass of silvery tissue round his right elbow from the bombing. He can no longer use this arm to draw or paint. But he tells me it isn’t the injury that stops him from making art. It’s the psychological trauma.

Instead of painting, he now makes collages of the images coming out of Syria and places them around his small apartment. Dead children, charred bodies, bombed-out buildings. These are the ghosts that linger nearby as he makes coffee and washes up. He tells me that he does it to feel close to them. “We’ve lost all our feelings. Injury, death is normal.”

Ahmad walked for six months to get to Europe. Along the way he met other refugees fleeing the war as well as Daesh militants, Turkish people smugglers, and police of every iteration. Border guards. Security personnel. Military. After paying a smuggler, Ahmad and forty other refugees took a tiny dinghy from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. He crossed into Albania but was soon arrested on suspicion of people smuggling and spent thirty-five days in prison before being sent back to Greece.

He crossed the border again via Macedonia. This time he didn’t get turned back. Utterly exhausted and carried by blackened and bruised feet, Ahmad continued through Eastern Europe, ending his journey in France. He stayed at a small camp in the grounds of a church in Calais before his refugee status was given the green light and he was sent to Scotland.

“I arrived at the same centre in Calais the day that Ahmad left!”

Amjad has one of those smiles that can cure the worst mood. He has a wicked sense of humour and the ability to be both shy and cheeky in the same moment. He has his own set of terrible injuries. Ahmad and his family were driving back to Damascus after a picnic in the countryside when he was shot. He says it felt like his head and throat had exploded. A sniper had taken aim at his father who was driving but missed, hitting Amjad in the back seat. But he’s pleased it happened that way.

“If they’d shot my Dad, my whole family would be dead.”

Amjad can still talk, although his voice is hoarse and tires easily. He also journeyed to Europe, but on a different route.

“Because he had money!” Ahmad teases.

Amjad is from an upwardly mobile family. The war has impoverished all classes but he was at least able to afford a plane ticket from Damascus to Algeria, and then on to Nador in Morocco. He entered Spain via Melilla, the small Spanish colony in Northern Morocco. In Melilla, refugees and migrants from all over Africa and the Middle East often rush the border fences in droves. They scavenge for food and live in hidden camps dotted around the nearby forests. It’s a lonely and frightening place.

It took Amjad two separate fake passports and many weeks before he could evade Spanish authorities and slip across the border to official Spanish territory. While in the south of Spain, he and some refugee friends decided to visit Gibraltar for the day. They were promptly kicked out.

“It is a tiny place and it only took them a few hours to work out there were some guys with Syrian passports walking around.”

From Spain, Amjad flew to Paris where he stayed for two nights, visiting the Eiffel Tower. He then took a train to Calais where he found shelter in a church camp, unaware that Ahmad had just been there.

Graffiti of Oor Wullie by Rogue-one. Braehead Tunnels. Glasgow. Image: Daniel Naczk [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Amjad hid in the back of a truck on its way to the UK. He applied for asylum and when it was approved, he was sent to Glasgow in Scotland, a place he knew little about. A friend from Calais heard of his transfer and shared Ahmad’s phone number with Amjad.

When Amjad texted, he found that Ahmad was living in the building opposite him.

“It was funny! We waved hello at each other from the window. From that moment until now we’ve been best friends. For a year and a half. We’ve done everything together.”

When reflecting on their first Glaswegian winter, they smile.

“Freezing doesn’t describe it.”

But both men have fallen in love with Scotland. They say the Scottish people have been warm and welcoming. They’ve also found comfort and brotherhood in the local Syrian community. But talk of war is never too far away.

“You have political conversations with five or six year olds because they’re speaking about everything. They’ll tell you what’s happening; what bombs sound like, what’s coming. He can tell you what model helicopter is on its way in the distance.”

Amjad comments how quickly they can switch from banal subjects like the Scottish weather to the war. He describes children as if they’re tiny war correspondents.

“You have political conversations with five or six year olds because they’re speaking about everything. They’ll tell you what’s happening; what bombs sound like, what’s coming. He can tell you what model helicopter is on its way in the distance.”

Ahmed tells me about his younger brother. “When I was in Syria he was four. He’d be at the front of the house, and the regime would be shelling and a bomb detonated 50 metres in front of him. My father calls to him, ‘Osam, come in’! He says back ‘It doesn’t matter, only 122 millimetres.’ At that time, I laughed. I had to grab him and bring him inside. Serious and funny.”

But Ahmad isn’t laughing. The empty, haunted expression is always present.

The  irony of their couch surfing exercise doesn’t escape them. Giving a free home to travellers when they can’t be in their own home would seem strange if it didn’t offer them so much. They say it started as a way to speak with foreigners who didn’t have thick Scottish accents.

“I couldn’t understand anyone when I first arrived in Glasgow,” adds Amjad.

Now it’s also a chance to learn about other cultures from the living room of their small Scottish homes. The idea is to give people a different experience and perspective on Syria.

“It’s a good time to tell people about our city and our people before and during this war. There are people who have stupid ideas about our culture. They think we are terrorists.”

I sense that speaking with outsiders helps them deal with their experiences of war. Neither see psychologists for post-traumatic stress disorder, although those services are available.

“Talking to someone? Well it’s so difficult because nobody can imagine what we saw in the past. If we are talking about the war. You can say ‘it’s so hard’ but you can’t imagine it. At all. Even Connor [the photographer who has worked in conflict zones and become their friend] can’t imagine it. We are Syrian guys. We even now cannot fathom what’s happening in our country.”

It’s important for Ahmad and Amjad to give a first-hand perspective on Syria when most accounts come from the media. They control the story they can tell outsiders. “Except one time there were some Canadian people who just ate all our food and made heaps of noise.” Amjad says, laughing.

Scotland’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been one of the most generous. In 2016, it took more than a third of the three thousand Syrian refugees who arrived in the UK. Refugees are offered housing and education.

Both Ahmad and Amjad study English and speak remarkably well considering the short time they’ve been in Scotland. I ask them what else they’d like to study. Amjad is reluctant to answer, even though he seems less emotionally affected. Maybe information technology or architecture, he says finally. Ahmad says they have to heal the mental scars before they can contemplate the future.

“We can’t make plans. That’s the truth. We plan, but we don’t consider it as possible. We can’t believe we can do it. In our country, they’ve destroyed our dreams. Before the war we had dreams. I was at the top of the class at university so I had plans. Lots of plans to continue my study and be a sculptor and painter.”

“24 million in Syria, 12 million refugees, one million are dead, half a million in prison. The people who are left are desperately poor. Now for the Syrian people, our dream is to find a safe place. That’s it. We don’t care if we have plans or jobs, we just want a safe place. To survive.”

Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. Image: PublicDomainPictures.net

Amjad’s room is filled with small paintings and sketches. While they fear making plans, they live with tenacity and courage. In small ways, they share the passions that used to be close to their hearts. Amjad shows me a beautiful and delicate figure of a ballerina, a sculpture he fashioned out of metal. Ahmad’s influence over his tastes and interests is obvious.

Before I leave Glasgow, the friends insist I join them for dinner at the restaurant where Ahmad works. The food Ahmad serves me is abundant and delicious, their hospitality impeccable. It’s little wonder they’ve become successful hosts. During my time in Glasgow, the men have shown me nothing but kindness and generosity. Now in our final hours together, they won’t let me pay for dinner. All they will accept from me is a thank you.

“It’s what we do,” Amjad says with a shrug.

“It’s no bother, pal,” Ahmad adds, in a perfect Glaswegian accent.

Postscript: Since my visit to Glasgow, Ahmad is no longer hosting couchsurfing guests. He has begun painting and making art work again and is considering resuming his studies in fine arts.

Brietta Hague is an Australian filmmaker and journalist living in Spain. She has produced work all over the world, from the edge of the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. Find her on Twitter at: @briettahague

Feature image: Man sleeping. Image: DieselDemon [CC BY 2.0]