From Syria to Starbucks: how a refugee hosting charity helped a Syrian refugee find his family

Six years ago the Syrian civil war began and changed Basel’s life forever.

At the time Basel was sixteen and a first-year Maths student at university – after a year of unrest and the war spread to his hometown of Aleppo he was forced to flee the country and leave his family behind.

After a gruelling four-and-a-half year journey which involved an overcrowded boat from Turkey to Greece, walking on foot from Greece to Germany, and six months in the Calais Jungle, Basel eventually reached England where he met Karina Litvack, 56, through a refugee-hosting charity.

Ms Litvack, 56, of Notting Hill, was eager to host refugees because of the experience of her own grandparents who both fled persecution during childhood– her grandfather fled Poland during the holocaust and her grandmother escaped from Ukraine.

Ms Litvack who is of French Canadian descent said: “The experience of being exiled is a very real one.

“For me it was difficult to see all these people and not identify very closely with what they were experiencing.”

As the initial six-week trial period neared an end, Basel had made other arrangements for accommodation – but Ms Litvack extended her home to him for good.

She added: “I say to him it’s your home it’s your kitchen as long as you clean it.”

Prior to leaving Syria Basel gave all his money to his father to help the family leave Syria when the time was right.

His father, who worked as a teacher, followed the same route his son had taken and obtained asylum for his family – apart from Basel’s brother, Ismail, who was over 18 and so not allowed to cross into Europe; he was consequently imprisoned in Turkey.

Last December was the first Christmas celebration for both Basel and Karina who are Muslim and Jewish respectively – however, the family spent the holiday deeply concerned about Ismail.

The 56-year-old said:  “We were all unbelievably anguished, we did not know whether he was going to get out.”

Ms Litvack worked with lawyers in a seven-month struggle to free Basel’s brother who now lives with her friend in Italy – the whole family including his four brothers, sister, and parents will reunite and celebrate Christmas together in Germany next week after six years apart.

Basel, 24, said: “Ms Litvack has helped me so much in every aspect of my life and she treats me like her own son, she reminds me of my mother.

“I appreciate her so much, she was so welcoming and I feel I can live safely here- London now feels like home.”

He added: “I feel like I belong.”

The 56-year-old business director taught Basel English and helped him find his current job as a barista at Starbucks in Kensington.

Basel studies English full-time and hopes to attend university next year to complete his Maths degree.

She added: “I am sad he’s not with us this Christmas, he left this morning and I was in tears – but I am so happy he’s going to be with his parents and they are all going to be together.”

This year Basel says he will celebrate Christmas with his family and friends in Germany, and Ms Litvack will enlist the help of Refugees at Home to host two new refugees for Christmas this year.

Refugees at Home is a charity that aims to connect refugees to those who may have a spare room.

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