There have been times in the past 10 years, Hassan Akkad says, that his life has felt more like a movie. Thinking that occasionally kept him sane – and, more important, kept him going.
Akkad’s walk-on part in world events began in 2011, when as a young English teacher he put himself in the frontline of Arab spring democracy protests in his native Syria. He was beaten and imprisoned by the regime – and at one point given a face-to-face audience with Bashar al-Assad, his torturer, to plead his case. Having fled Damascus in fear of his life during the civil war, Akkad became for three years one of those 12 million “displaced persons” searching for a home on the six o’clock news. Unflinching cameraphone clips of his long journey to Britain – clinging to a sinking people-smuggler dinghy off the coast of Turkey, en route to the “Jungle” in Calais – made the most vivid and affecting footage of the BBC’s Bafta-winning Exodus: Our Journey to Europe series.
The latest act in Akkad’s Odyssean life involved another self-made video. Having taken a job as a cleaner in a Covid-19 ward at his local hospital, Whipps Cross in east London, at the start of the pandemic, in May Akkad made a heartfelt filmed address to Boris Johnson. He spoke, close to tears, into his cameraphone at the end of another draining shift. The improvised speech, made on behalf of those immigrant NHS workers shamefully excluded from the government’s bereavement compensation scheme and forced to pay a premium to use the hospitals they were risking their lives to keep afloat, was directly instrumental in another of the prime minister’s mumbled U-turns the following day.
Sitting in the shared garden of his flat last week, Akkad was wondering what the script of his life might involve next. He laughs about the more surreal aspects of his recent profile: the fact that the pop star Dua Lipa had chosen him as her national hero in GQ in June; his emotional appearance before Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain that not only helped to fuel the £35,000 he raised for the St Bartholomew’s hospital charity, but seemed instrumental in Morgan’s recent incongruous soul-searching (“We can all be better people after this, Hassan. I do not exclude myself. I think it’s brought so much perspective, I really do”). If Captain Tom had been Morgan’s ghost of Christmas Past, Akkad, aged 32, seemed to represent to him a vision of a kinder, more inclusive future.
The day before we met, Akkad had posted a picture on Twitter of his shiny new membership card for the Labour party. He has been thinking, he says, about using his unique vantage on this country – and his engaging eloquence in his second language – to do something in politics. Spend an hour or two in his company, and I would defy you not to feel like printing leaflets and knocking doors on his behalf. Akkad arrived in Britain in 2015 in time to witness – and despair of – Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” referendum poster. The imaginary director of his biopic would do well to reserve that same space for a campaign billboard in a future election: vote Hassan Akkad for a Britain you might be proud of again.
It goes without saying that he wanted none of this drama. We talk first in the sunshine – across a garden table on two knackered chairs, surrounded by the steep rear elevations of Edwardian terraces – about the importance of good neighbours. Growing up in Damascus, where his father had a pizza restaurant, Akkad knew everyone on his street. In Leytonstone, he has only really got to chat to his neighbours since Covid-19. Everyone minded their own business here, he says, but, happily, post clap-for-carers, that has changed. “I think it is important to have neighbours as friends,” he says. He has further extended that hand of hospitality by volunteering at his local food bank, where need has tripled, doing drop-offs for those who suddenly have no income or are shielding.
The social-isolation Skype habits of lockdown have long been his reality. His immediate family all left Syria – his parents fetched up in the UAE, his brother has been in Yemen working for the World Food Programme – and they haven’t been under the same roof for eight years. Uncles and cousins remain in Damascus, where the economy has collapsed and there is an outbreak of coronavirus, which the government ignores. A couple of days ago Akkad was on the phone with a friend back home whose dad had died of the virus. “And in the death certificate, they said ‘lung disease’, no Covid. Even in times of pandemic, as we know, propaganda plays a big role.”
Akkad initially responded to the recruitment drive for cleaning and portering staff at Whipps Cross hospital, 10 minutes up the road, because he felt he needed to play his part in the emergency. There was a shortage of staff because so many NHS workers were falling ill. When he began, 90% of the admissions were Covid-19 patients. He has been detained in Syrian jails, but even so, he says: “I don’t think I have ever been as scared walking into a building as I was that first day in April. Back then the level of uncertainty was very high.”
His British Ghanaian boss, Albert, who had worked the ward for 15 years, became his mate. They would arrive at seven in the morning, get into their scrubs and then get to work disinfecting everything you could see, “all the hotspots, the light switches, the toilets and the bed frames of the patients, some of whom were dying”. He was doing eight hours a day, five days a week, then coming home to his flat here and staying put, not even risking going to the shops.
In the course of his work, Akkad started to take pictures of his colleagues, which appeared in an article he wrote for Politico magazine. His friendship made the nurses and the cleaners come alive on the page. “We were 18 people on the wards, and we came from 12 countries,” he says. What sustained them was the chats that they would have during breaks. His friend and colleague Gimba, the ward host, would make her signature Nigerian jollof rice and boast about it over lunch; Akkad would make the counter-argument for hummus and falafel.
“We were trying to distract ourselves from what we were seeing, because the reality was quite horrid,” he says. Gimba contracted Covid-19; Albert, who is 52, “busted his shoulder” with the intensity of the cleaning demands. The stress for all of them was made worse by wider political frustration. Akkad remembers going to work the morning that the government decided to exclude the families of NHS cleaners and porters from its bereavement compensation scheme, and the prime minister, recently out of hospital, argued that the minimum-wage immigrant workers who were keeping the Covid-19 wards going would continue to pay a £400 surcharge to use the NHS themselves. “When I arrived that day, everyone felt completely betrayed, stabbed in the back,” Akkad says. He spent his shift unable to think of anything but the injustice of that policy. When he sat in his car later, and talked into his phone camera, he let those frustrations out. “There was this feeling, too: I have come from Syria; these are not things I would expect to encounter here.”
I wonder why he thinks his intervention proved so effective; the prime minister never had the grace to respond to him directly – “I’m not Marcus Rashford” – but the policy was almost immediately reversed.
“I think partly because usually refugees – Syrians – are at the receiving end of humanitarian action. So when I am doing this, and raising £35,000 for Barts trust, they think it’s the wrong way round.” He rejects that perceived contradiction. He spoke up for human rights in Syria. Why give up now he has found a home here? “In my experience the people that get excluded from help are always the most vulnerable,” he says. “In this case the cleaners and porters.”
Akkad told Piers Morgan, with some authority, that any proper human being is changed by crisis. Looking back, he identifies the Arab spring as the moment that really shaped him. If his family had political discussions before that, it was always behind closed doors. “If you made a private joke about the regime and it got out, there would be consequences.” At the age of 12, Akkad had been forced to join the ruling Ba’ath party, wear its military uniform to school, recite its slogans “unity, freedom and socialism” and to curse “Zionism and imperialism” – though he did not understand what any of these words meant. “The same year we were taken to a field and taught to shoot a rifle,” he says. “Syria was a rich country but all of the money went to the Assad regime and their allies.”
He studied English but most books were banned. A turning point for him was reading a memoir called The Shell, written by a Syrian Christian called Mustafa Khalifa. The book described how Khalifa had been wrongfully arrested and tortured in the notorious secret service prison in Palmyra. “My cousin was in that prison at the same time,” Akkad says. “That memoir became my Bible. Once I had read it I could not have my sanity and live with a regime like that.”
Unlike many of the democracy protesters, left with nothing to lose in 2011, Akkad was doing well for himself. He was teaching English and doing photographic assignments in his spare time, earning £2,000 a month, more than his father was with his restaurant. He had a car and was about to put down a deposit on a flat. All that changed with the arrest and torture of 15 children in the city of Daraa, who had allegedly written anti-Assad slogans on a wall, the event that triggered the civil war in Syria. “You could not hear that story and not get involved,” he says. “They could have been my students, 13, 14 years old. And the secret police had pulled out their fingernails. That was the start for me.”
Protest was liberating for a while, but the response was brutal. Akkad filmed the demonstrations and posted them online. The first time he was detained and beaten by the security services, both of Akkad’s arms were broken with iron bars as he tried to protect his face; his ribs and legs were smashed. Not long after he was released from custody, he was called in to meet Assad.
“Apparently he had heard my story – I worked in a school with some quite elite kids. So he asked me to meet him at his palace.” He smiles, shakes his head. “I went there honestly thinking I was the person who could change his mind. I said: ‘If I speak honestly will I be allowed to go back home today?’ and he said yes. So I told him bluntly about the systemic torture of his regime, and that I had lived that experience. I told him about how he was making enemies of a generation. I think you should always speak truth to power. But I assume that was what led to my second period of detention…”
There are parts of that experience that Akkad finds too hard to think about. He was placed in an underground cell two metres square, and told he would be there for ever. There were scratches and marks on the walls from prisoners who had been there before him. He was released after two weeks, but the effect was worse than the physical beatings. “When you are on a journey to get somewhere, as I was, you hold a lot inside; but when you get to the place, the emotional scars, under the scars of the torture, they surface.” In Britain he was diagnosed with complex PTSD, but mental health had not been talked about much at home. “You are suddenly stuck with this thing you have no vocabulary for,” he says. “I literally had to Google stuff to find out what was going on in my head.”
Working in the NHS in the past months has, he suggests, helped him to access some of that trauma properly for the first time – “the hospital was intimidating but also oddly empowering in some ways,” he says. Having seen the worst of humanity, he now saw some of the best among his colleagues. “I witnessed a lot of people die, but also a lot recover and go home to their loved ones, and I played a small role in making that happen.” That small sense of agency, even in the crisis, contrasted with a decade in which the extreme circumstances of his life had often been beyond his control. “I came out of working at the hospital able to tell people that I am not a victim,” he says.
He has, like all refugees, been asked to carry that label with him across Europe. “People always want to see you as some symbol of pain,” he says. “For example, it bothered me that my friends wouldn’t tell me to piss off if I was being irritating, or whatever.” People would either pity him, or pigeonhole him, or both. He does not feel he was properly credited or compensated for the BBC Exodus film – he says he received no payment for the five hours of footage he handed over – and has been determined to learn from that experience.
He wants opportunity, not sympathy. “When I posted that hospital video, every production company on the face of the Earth contacted me, asking me to be involved in their Covid documentary,” he says, “but always as a contributor, never as a collaborator.” Instead he approached the hospital trust to ask if he could do some filming, after his shift was over, and he is now making a film of his own, “Not about patients but about [his] team that worked for the NHS.”
He has, in the same spirit, also started writing a memoir, and has a contract with Pan Macmillan. “I want people who read it not to cry but to campaign,” he says.
That was part of the impulse that led him to record the detail of his experience of migration, even as he came close to drowning. Did that storyteller’s instinct also help to keep him one step removed from the madness?
“I could operate a camera, I could speak English, so I had privileges over most of the people,” he says. “But even when our boat was taking in water and about to sink, the camera protected me in a way.” Being an observer gave him something to think about, took him out of the reality just a little.
Perhaps as a result he seems remarkably self-aware. How much does he think he was changed by the experiences he had on the road?
“I view the world way more cynically, in some ways,” he says, “but I am also grateful for aspects of what happened. I was this kid in Damascus with quite a nice life, but I wasn’t always nice. I was a bit racist sometimes, a bit class-ist. So it has been an education. I survived on food parcels in Calais, so I know what that is like. I slept in a park for 10 days with no tent or sleeping bag, being attacked by seagulls. I really hate seagulls.” After maybe 50 failed attempts to get on a lorry across the Channel, he eventually managed to get on a flight to Heathrow with a fake passport, and to claim asylum.
If he has regrets, they are largely about the anxieties he has caused his mother. While he was journeying across Europe, there would be long gaps in contact, particularly after he lost all his belongings in the sea crossing. “I always apologise to my mum for what I have put her through,” he says. When he got the job at Whipps Cross he sent her a photo in full PPE, explaining he had started to work in the Covid-19 ward. “Of course you have,” she wrote in reply. His parents are proud of his campaigning, but they are not able get a visa to visit him. What he struggled with most in the hospital, he says, “was watching people say goodbye to their loved ones on Skype – no one should have to die on their own”.
Why, I wonder, looking back, was he so stubbornly determined to come here and not elsewhere in Europe? He smiles. “I had studied English literature and I thought of London as the centre of democracy and human rights,” he says. “Having lived in a totalitarian country for two decades of my life, I wanted to live somewhere that I could be free.” He watched the film Braveheart 10 times back in Syria; that William Wallace cry of “Freedom!” stayed with him.
He might, he admits now, have been careful what he wished for – to the extent that he is no longer certain he even wants to stay here beyond next year. “For someone from Syria, the creeping authoritarianism is quite vivid here now,” he suggests. “Contracts going to government cronies; politicians breaking the rules and not facing consequences; this delusional democracy where people are lied to, and vote for the liars.”
When he made his stand about the NHS, he did so in the knowledge that in March of next year his visa expires and he has to apply for indefinite leave to remain. “I was worried about putting myself out there. Everyone is anxious that they will change all the citizenship rules again after Brexit.” And then, with curiosity: “I’m an outsider here. I watch what is happening, and I’m like: is there ever a time when the British get out and protest?”
Not all Akkad’s encounters have reflected a hostile environment. He lived for the first two months after arrival in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, on the couch of a volunteer he had met in Calais. Then he was taken in by a family with a spare room in Brixton. He got a job doing marketing with a charity called ChooseLove (for which he also raised £50,000), and a photographer doing some work for them heard his story and gave him a camera, so he could pursue his chosen ambition. “Those acts of generosity are what you need,” he says, “and they are why I do the work I do now.”
Slowly, with that help and through his own strength of mind, London has started to feel like home. He has a mental map of favourite places – Brixton, the canals, Epping Forest, Primrose Hill – and a tight network of friends. If the imaginary director of his movie life had a romantic ending in mind, however, that thread has been thwarted by lockdown. Akkad’s girlfriend is a fellow émigré from Syria, Farah, originally here as a student, whose family home in Damascus was destroyed by bombing. They were meant to get married last month in the register office in Leytonstone, and had hoped to then get the families together in Jordan for a celebration. If anyone is used to upended hopes and uncertainty, though, it is Akkad. “It will happen,” he says, of the life they have planned. “But of course again we will have to wait.”