Lives of Syrian Refugees in Scotland


While Scotland has been a beacon of hope for many Syrian refugees, resettlement can create a grievous sense of loss and emptiness for many.


Associate Professor Fawad Khaleel of Edinburgh Napier University and Dr Alija Avudukic of Al-Maktoum College, Scotland, UK, examine the challenges faced by people from Syria, who experienced forced displacement from their home country due to war and were re-placed in Scotland.


The original research is still under review and will be published soon.


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Image Source: Adobe Stock Images / Pavlo



Hello and welcome to Research Pod.  Thank you for listening, and joining us today.


In this episode, we uncover the experiences of Syrian refugees who resettle in Scotland, and encounter some of their hurdles integrating into Scottish society. We’ll learn about investigations conducted by Associate Professor Fawad Khaleel of Edinburgh Napier University and Dr Alija Avudukic of Al-Maktoum College, Scotland, UK, as they examine the challenges faced by people from Syrian, who experienced forced displacement from their home country due to war and were re-placed in Scotland.


We’ll think about how refugees seek to use their pre-existing skills and knowledge as they rebuild their livelihoods. We’ll find out about the impact of different forms of social capital.   We’ll discover how the rhythms of everyday life are reconfigured by Syrian refugees, and how their fragile, disrupted rhythms have been further impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Scotland has been a beacon of hope for many Syrian refugees, offering safety, stability, and opportunities for a better life. Resettlement programs in Scotland have provided housing, financial support, and access to essential services.  Yet gaps remain between the social capital and skills that refugees bring with them, and the opportunities available within the Scottish context.  This can create a grievous sense of loss, while a sense of displaced presence merges with notions of home to form a sense of emptiness.


For Syrian refugees, the journey to Scotland often includes danger, trauma and violence.  Many have also experienced double displacement, having spent time in an intermediate country before arriving in Scotland, further interrupting their rhythm of life.  The seasonality and rhythmic structure of life for refugees, reclassified as “New Scots”, leads to multiple, yet different, rhythms of everyday lives.


The experiences of Syrian refugees across the UK shares some similarities due to the common UK legal framework for refugee resettlement.  However, policies also exhibit notable differences shaped by regional policies.


Scottish Government policy has welcomed refugees in devolved matters such as housing, education, and health. Scotland’s emphasis on inclusivity and community sponsorship reflects Scottish civic nationalisation and codes such as post-imperial tolerance, fairness, egalitarianism, and welfare, largely uncontested by nativistic rhetoric such as the hostile environment for migrants and belligerent ethnocentric codes.  Instead, the Scottish government’s emphasis on community sponsorship programs and integration initiatives may create a strong sense of local support and collaboration.


Limited proficiency in English can be a significant obstacle to integration. Difficulty communicating hinders refugees’ ability to access services, find employment, and engage in community life. Finding suitable employment can be especially challenging due to factors like language barriers and lack of recognition of prior qualifications, but it is extremely important to refugees. Syrian refugees see employment as a means of re-creating new rhythms of everyday life that can improve the sense of belonging, create the feeling of affiliation and increase the motivation to re-learn everyday skills.


Being locked out of the labour market can also prevent migrants from contributing to the economy, and acts as a barrier to the integration process.  The impact on refugee’s ‘sense of being’ in this situation can result in feeling of continuous loss, as their prior professional achievements and aspirations become insignificant and extraneous in their new reality.  This can lead to refugees feeling ambivalent about their future career paths, or withdrawing socially and economically, especially those who are highly qualified professionals such as doctors and teachers. A pre-existing identity, such as being a lawyer in Syria, may be stripped away by displacement.  Their social and economic capital instead gets replaced by their new reality. Where they may only be known to neighbours, local authorities, and community members, as primarily, “a refugee”.


To integrate into Scottish society, refugees may draw on the skills, knowledge, and relationships they bring with them from their country of origin. Yet these cultural resources rarely align with their country of destination. A rucksack analogy is a model which assumes a fixed bundle of cultural resources generated in a country of origin, but these forms of social capital may or may not align with the economy and culture of the country of origin. Converting cultural and social capital from one country to another as frictionless resources for migrants, may also not be fully possible due to state classification systems and qualification recognitions. Refugees are unable to unpack social capital from their rucksacks, and have to seek fresh socioeconomic validation in their new setting.


Gender and age also shape social capital. The cultural norms associated with gender and age from the lives lived in Syria and the new gender and age dynamics in Scotland have a profound impact on refugees’ resettlement experiences. Elderly may experience isolation, and prolonged separation from family support networks contributes to their burden of stress. In integration processes such as employment, language, health, education, and housing, women tend to fare worse than men. Over time, refugee women are more likely to be in education and in self-employment than men.


Adolescent children in refugee families may find it easier to embrace their new life.  By attending school and interacting with peers, they quickly develop an understanding of Scottish society and norms.  Most Syrian refugees live in an inverted family structure where roles are reversed, as adult refugees regularly have to consult their adolescent children when making everyday decisions.  These revised roles of gender and age are potentially disorientating, challenging the concepts of being and rigidities of social constructs.


Rhythmanalysis is a critical phenomenological perspective examining modes of being in the world.  By using qualitative methods such as timeline drawing, audio-narrated solicited diaries, and photovoice, key elements and complexities of everyday life can be addressed.


Associate Professor Fawad Khaleel and Dr Alija Avudukic identified 20 Syrian refugees in Scottish urban areas through community organizations and network sampling. They invited them to make audio and photo entries at least three times a week to provide an insight into everyday realities and lived social experiences of these marginalized individuals.


Photography is a powerful medium for capturing the altered rhythm of life experienced by displaced people. It offers a unique and poignant perspective on refugee experiences such as dependence, interdependence, and independence. These images convey the unfolding challenges refugees face, as well as endeavours to recreate rhythm and reconfigure social capital.


The overarching theme of the photodiaries was that of “emptiness”.  Concepts of Syria and Scotland coalesced into a single notion.  The merging of time and space with concepts of belonging and notions of home overshadowed many experiences. Even pleasant activities, such as visiting a Scottish cafe with friends, was still associated with the notion that “something is always missing”.


Syrian refugees’ photographs offer a powerful visual narrative of their altered rhythm of life following displacement. They provide an intimate look into the challenges and triumphs of resettlement, as they engage in place making, creating a sense of home in multiple places.


Polyrhythmia is a musical concept that refers to the simultaneous presence of multiple, contrasting rhythms. When applied metaphorically to the experiences of Syrian refugees in Scotland, it provides insight into how their lives are characterized by the coexistence of multiple, different, rhythmic worlds.


Syrian refugees bring with them economic, social and cultural rhythms that are often vastly different from those in Scotland. This creates a cultural polyrhythm, where refugees navigate the complexities of preserving their heritage while adapting to a new culture.


Fixed, metronomic constraints of the outer world of temporal social ecology creates a reality that is full of contractions, dichotomies, and paradoxes for refugees.  This disharmonic and arrhythmic flux of existence can be challenging.


The Covid-19 crisis has also had a profound impact. It exacerbated the absence of socioeconomic opportunities and created hurdles in daily life for Syrian refugees living in Scotland.  Lockdown impacted the formation, deformation, and reformation of everyday rhythm.  In the presence of a crisis, the need for a rhythm of life, everyday activities with a sense of belonging and purpose is important for survival.  However, already fragile and disrupted rhythms of everyday life of displaced Syrians were further altered by the Covid crisis.


Experience of daily life place making for Syrian refugees in Scotland reflects polyrhythmia, as points of orientation formulated from lives in Syria does not match the new Scottish temporal context of existence and can no longer be used to live a life. However, Syrian refugees are still somehow finding the resilience and adaptability needed to find harmony amid the diverse rhythms of disrupted past, chaotic present and uncertain future.


In spite of their best effort, refugees still experience a sense of emptiness, as notion of belonging to both Syria and Scotland blends into a notion of being at home and being simultaneously homeless, as the past experiences in Syria may continue to overshadow the present.


It’s also a challenge for refugees to bridge the gap between the skills they bring with them, and the socioeconomic opportunities available to them.  Social capital may have to be reconfigured or re-established, for instance, by gaining new qualifications or re-qualifying. For some, the loss of social capital and absence of social networks has been much more painful than being displaced. Within the grief of what once was and realisation of emptiness in what is now, somehow most of the refugees find the motivation to rebuild their lives by creating new rhythms.


This research shows that refugees are unlike any other. They did not leave their past lives but instead were forced to do so, while getting robbed of everything. Now they are rebuilding their new lives in Scotland– instead of giving up. It is the most courageous thing a human can do.



That’s all for this episode, thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science.


See you again soon.


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