Sunshine smile and soulfood from Syria

“I say to fellow immigrants ‘put in to this country. Do not take out. Put in.’”

Khaled Wakkaa has been living in Exeter since March 2017, when he arrived from war-torn Syria and years in refugee camps in Lebanon, with his wife Dalal and young daughter Lemar (now joined by a little sister born in Exeter). He told his story in a book published in 2019 – Human Crossings: 9 stories about refugees, a counter-narrative to the xenophobic scaremongering and vilification spewed out by the right wing press.

Refugees should not have to feel that they ‘owe’ us anything and nor should they be stereotyped in any way, but the inescapable fact is that Khaled is the very antithesis of the tabloid refugee bogeyman. Arriving in a strange land with very little English, he has thrown himself into life in the local community and quickly become much loved and celebrated, helping wherever he can and living up to his mantra.

We have had Khaled on our radar for a while as the next interviewee on our series of refugee stories, but, actually, why drag him back into the past when there’s so much to talk about that he is doing right now?

Before Covid-19 hit, he was one of the volunteers with Exeter Food Fight, out on Exeter’s streets feeding whomsoever was in need of a hot meal – the homeless, young people struggling to make ends meet, people who had not eaten for days, isolated, lonely people. Every Sunday, week in, week out, the volunteers fed people delicious home-cooked food, with Khaled giving them a taste of authentic Syrian cuisine.

Then the virus struck and a presence on the street was no longer an option; but the need had not gone away. In fact, it was greater than ever.

“People took that lockdown very seriously.” Khaled comments. “Not like this one. In the first lockdown, people stayed in their houses. Many were lonely and hungry. We had to find a way to help feed them. If this service had not been available, I do not know what would happen to some people.”

He carried on cooking at home and, in the first lockdown, he and his fellow volunteers were needed like never before, producing and distributing 2,500 meals over those weeks. Freemoovement, another inspirational volunteer enterprise (in which, naturally, Khaled has been involved as a volunteer) switched from running motivational free exercise sessions to mobilising its supporters to get out and collect from the ‘chef of the day’ and deliver the food to people’s homes.

Khaled and his family have had to be cautious about being out and about in the pandemic. The years of enduring tough conditions in Lebanon have taken their toll on his family’s immune systems and he has been shocked by the lack of consideration for others in this most recent lockdown. But Khaled is not a man to see obstacles and he was determined to find other ways to help beyond the weekly cook.

“I create a new volunteer job for myself” he says, and you can hear a mixture of amusement and pride in his voice. “I set up a Facebook page to help match people who wanted to give – things or help or whatever – to people who were in need. It’s just helping how I can. I don’t have a name for this thing. Perhaps I should think of one, but it is just me, putting people together.”

He laughs his infectious laugh, before telling me about the latest book in which he’s involved – Hearts on the Rise: Connecting through Corona – which pulls together the stories of people across the world who are committed to bringing people together and crossing cultural divides. Part I came out in the summer last year. Khaled features in Part II, due out very soon.

“My story is there, in Arabic and English. It is a great experience for me. We just had an international Zoom event to talk about the book. It shows what people can do when they work as a team”

He’s always on the lookout for new ways to make a difference – helping refugees with their English is high on his agenda right now as isolation means that language acquisition is made much more difficult. People need people to talk to at the best of times, after all.

“What I always say is – be kind, be helpful! Life is too short. Even if you live for one hundred years, it is not enough!” he exclaims, as we wrap up our call.

How different the world would be if we all lived by this code.

You can support charities that work with refugees by buying Khaled’s books, either on Amazon or directly from him.