In a shed in a back garden in Barnsley, Khaled al-Ayoubi tends to his budgies. He is a long way from his former life. In 2012, he was Syria’s most senior UK diplomat, but quit over the regime’s “violent and oppressive acts”. He then began a new existence in the South Yorkshire town.”I (had) one budgie who used to mimic lots of words and dance. That was in Syria,” the 47-year-old says.
Disco, Tommy and Farah are among some 20 birds hand-reared and hand-fed by Khaled. He spends hours with them every day. They are also the stars of his Youtube channel Happy Parrots, where thousands of viewers get tips on feeding, breeding and bathing the colourful birds. “They are like my children now. I can’t live without them,” he says. “It’s as if you’re dealing with a human – they have character.”The birds, which are popular in Syria, have been part of helping him adjust to his new life.
“I was very stressed. I have good neighbours but you can’t stay with your neighbours all the time,” he says.
“I sit alone, I have no one to speak with. So they are my friends, I feel relaxed with them. They are fabulous animals.”
In 2012, Khaled lead Syria’s embassy in London as the charge d’affaires. A year earlier, pro-democracy demonstrations – inspired by the “Arab Spring” – had taken place in Syria. But they were met by deadly force from the government, which led to more protests demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. The violence intensified and soon the country had descended into civil war. And so after seven years as a diplomat, Khaled resigned.
“I wasn’t happy with the way they were treating the Syrian people,” he said. “When I realised the country was going to be destroyed, I said I can’t ever be part of that.
“Then Prime Minister David Cameron hailed his resignation as “one in the eye” for the Assad regime, which he hoped would “crumble as fast as possible”.
More than six years on, having claimed more than 350,000 lives and created millions of refugees, Syria’s civil war continues. As one of the first diplomats to defect, Khaled says now he was very scared. “There was a huge danger on me. So they decided for security reasons to transfer me out of London and then I ended up here in Barnsley.”
Why Barnsley? There are currently 40,481 people housed on the UK’s asylum dispersal scheme, but they are not dispersed equally around the country. Barnsley houses 415 asylum seekers, while in other places – like Prime Minister Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency – there are none.
Councils participate in the asylum dispersal scheme voluntary but some, like Barnsley, are now threatening to withdraw.
“We don’t want to (withdraw) but we can’t carry on in the vein we’ve been,” Barnsley council leader Stephen Houghton told Newsnight. Government guidance says no more than one in every 200 of the local population should be an asylum seeker.
But asylum seekers often end up clustered in small areas, where private companies contracted by the Home Office can find the cheapest property.
The Local Government Association has suggested the one in 200 cap be applied at ward level.BBC Newsnight has been shown a list of the 10 wards in Yorkshire with the highest concentration of asylum seekers. In all 10 of them, asylum seekers make up more than one in 200 of the population.
In Park ward in Calderdale, asylum seekers constitute one in 68 of the population. In Barnsley, Kingstone ward has a ratio of one in 86, while in Central ward the ratio is one in 98.
“Very often these are communities with their own social and economic challenges to begin with,” Cllr Houghton says.
The cost of housing asylum seekers is footed by the Home Office rather than local authorities.
In a statement, the Home Office said: “Where a local authority agrees to take part, accommodation providers must consult with them on all properties they intend to use as asylum accommodation. Through this process local authorities can raise any concerns they have.”
“I have good neighbours, they welcome refugees,” he says. “They’re really supportive.”
But one of the biggest problems Khaled faced once his asylum status became refugee status was finding work.
His wife works in a factory, while Khaled volunteers with the Refugee Council as an advisor and interpreter helping new arrivals. He recalls meeting refugees who had been attacked or abused since arriving in England. One “lost his knee”, while another had eggs thrown at their window.
‘We lost our home’
“Migrants – we live uncertainly because we don’t know the future. I have no place to go,” Khaled says. He plans to apply for citizenship in order to get a British passport and to “have a country to protect me”.
“I am not here for benefits. I came here to be safe,” he says. “I abandoned all my fortune. I lost all my properties in Syria… I still live in uncertainty.”Khaled accepts he may not ever see his home country again.
“I would like to die there, but now it’s not an option. I know politics, I know this regime has been rehabilitated, so (there’s) no way I can go there. If this president went, his son would be the ruler and after 30 years there would be another revolution.
“We lost the country. We lost our home.”Shared by: