Through his music, Belal Al Asali takes people in the UK back to Syria and reminds them of the beautiful past.

Belal, 39 years old, was born into an artistic family with most of its members working in music. Studied music in Syria then fled to Lebanon and then the UK. He says “Syria is always in my heart and it’s challenging to sing when my people suffer a crisis every day but we must keep our smile for the audience and sing to provide for our families and help people in need in Syria.”

Belal only chooses songs that have good lyrics that suit the Middle Eastern culture. “I always sing traditional old songs to bring them to life again. Arabs in the UK enjoy listening to them as they feel nostalgia and happy old memories visit them.”

The Syrian artist has a studio at home where he spends most of his time training and recording songs. Belal plays the keyboard and the percussion instruments and learns new instruments now and then. in 2016, he formed a band with 27 members called Balabel Al Shark (the Eastern Bulbuls). In each part of the UK, there’s a member or two to cover that area.

Belal says, “I dream of being internationally well-known and becoming a first-class singer. My songs have a message and encourage people to listen to good music. I urge people to be wise when listening to songs. The type of music and lyrics must be respectful and meaningful, otherwise, it might harm the brain. This is primarily for the new generation who deserves good music.” 

His fans are not only Arabs but also English and people from different backgrounds. “Music is a language itself, we don’t need a translator to understand and feel the music,” he adds.

Belal is currently working on a mini album that includes two of his original, lyrics and music.

He says, “I sing to spread love and unity and because we represent the Syrian community, I want to introduce Syrian cultural music and educate people about the history and art of Syria through my music.”



Leamington Spa is the most welcoming place for refugees. Rima Ayoubi catches up with Welcome Here Group to find out about what they do to make guests feel at home.

People who are forced to flee their countries arrive in the UK with no idea how they will live or what they will face. But then, in Leamington Spa and Warwick, a volunteer group came together and made those people feel “welcome”.

Penny Halpin, Chair of the Welcome Here Group says, “We wanted people to feel welcome here in Leamington Spa because not everybody is welcoming.”

Halpin has been the chair of the group for five years and recently she has handed the position to one of the volunteers, Kate Morrison.

It all started when Halpin heard that Syrian refugees would arrive in Leamington Spa and applied to be volunteer befrienders. She then linked with the first two families who arrived in 2017. Then, the group started from there when all the volunteers got together and formed it to help the families.

“It was important to do things properly, so we set up a committee and opened a bank account for the group.”, Halpin said.

Over the years, more Syrian families arrived. Then, in 2021, Afghan families started to arrive and the group is supporting them as well.

The group works very closely with Warwick County Council resettlement team, the local churches, and Compassionate Kenilworth, who work with asylum seekers. They offer ESOL classes and collect and distribute donated clothes.

The group gave practical support and funding. They offered bicycles to children to be able to get to school and television for each family. Sometimes, parents weren’t able to afford after-school clubs and the group paid for them from their small budget. 

Halpin says, “We are not a big funder but when the Afghans arrived in 2021, there was suddenly a huge need for clothing, toiletries and stuff for babies. We have put a local appeal and people were very generous so we went out and bought a lot of stuff for the families.

We are always careful when contacting the community and putting in any local appeals. This is because of the balance between recognising the privacy of families that we are working with and getting support from the community. The families are entitled to private life.

Therefore, the group doesn’t have a big presence on social media. The families need to fit in with the community and not be seen to be different.”

Welcome Here Group is the only group that works with the refugees in Leamington Spa and Warwick. Six years ago, Warwickshire never had this experience of having refugees but now everything has changed.

The community needs to realise how difficult it is for people to be forced to leave their own homes and be sent across the world. They didn’t know where they were coming to and ended up in the UK. Then, they have to rebuild their lives from scratch.

Halpin adds, “It’s very difficult for us to imagine what it must be like for families who have come to live in this country, not because that’s what they chose to do, but because they have come for reasons of war and conflict.

The difficulty is leaving their homes and leaving families behind and fear for them, for their safety. Besides, the difficulty of settling into a new culture, learning how the system works and speaking a new language. The challenges are multiple!”

The main challenge for refugees is finding jobs. To be able to get a job, they need to have a reasonable level of English. So, the group helps people with their speaking, reading and writing. The volunteers visit the families regularly to give them English lessons.

As Halpin explains, it’s a complicated system for anybody looking for jobs. People bring all kinds of different skills. Language is the first barrier. Then, skills are not always transferable and there is a huge bureaucracy in getting jobs in this country. It’s very different to the environment of getting jobs in their countries.

Of course, This is different for asylum seekers as they are not allowed to work. This makes it even more difficult for them.

Halpin says, “One thing on our agenda is to help refugees with employment, which isn’t available at the moment”.


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The volunteers also face some challenges. For instance, the difference in language is a massive one. They use Google translate and simple hand-signing to be able to communicate. 

Over time, the families learn English and improve their ability to communicate and build friendships. Children adapt more quickly than adults and once they start going to school they become translators. The first family that Halpin helped had a five-year-old boy, Ali. He became a very good English speaker just after a few months in school.


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The families and volunteers become good friends and learn from each other. Tricia Lee, a volunteer with the Welcome Here Group says, “We’ve laughed a lot, cried loads and learnt together some of our cultural differences.”

Mrs Lee is known as “mum” to both a Syrian young mother and an Afghan girl, who is without any family members. Her family couldn't make it to the UK. All the families are happy to meet them and very hospitable. “It’s a huge privilege to be involved”, Lee adds.

After all these years of working with the families, Halpin says, “I do feel how lucky I am. I really do. I’d like to feel that any refugees and asylum seekers who come to Warwickshire and who come to live in this particular area would feel welcomed. Then, we would see their lives little by little improving and they would feel more and more at home. It is important to see other people as different sorts of human beings and honour other people’s beliefs and how enriching it is. I’m the richer for being involved in the Welcome Here Group. It’s one of the best things in my life!”

Russell T Davies' hit TV show It’s a Sin is a hard-hitting account of the injustices and gay shaming that plagued the LGBT+ community throughout the 1980s.

But what has it been like to grow up as an LGBT+ person in the twenty-first century? An LGBT+ kid in Coventry?

For thirty-three-year-old Michael Mullen, it was one of the most challenging times in his life.

“I found school incredibly difficult. I didn’t know how bad it would be from one day to the next and nine times out of ten I would go home feeling really down”.

He believed he was a target for bullies at secondary school because he had a voice and ‘feminine’ mannerisms.

The bullying was not limited to the playground, and he recalls having homophobic slurs thrown at him on the school bus regularly.

“It was difficult because I didn’t even know my own sexuality at the time”.

Michael’s mental health deteriorated throughout this period leading him to self-harm and he believes if he didn’t have his older brother to confide in, he may not have been here now.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. In 2017, a report by Stonewall found that 61% of LGB pupils had deliberately harmed themselves because of school bullying while 22% had attempted to take their own life. For trans pupils these figures were higher, rising to 84% and 45% respectively.

Though experiences of homophobic and biphobic bullying at school have declined since Michael went to school, LGBT+ young people are still twice as likely to be bullied as their heterosexual peers. Perhaps just as worrying, a 2017 report by NIESER found that 83% of serious incidents committed against them would go unreported. Common reasons given were ‘it happens all the time’, ‘nothing would change’ or ‘it wouldn’t be taken seriously enough’.

Robbie Young (33), a former National Union Students LGBT+ Officer, understands the negative impact this can have on LGBT+ young people. As a teenager, he internalised a lot of shame as a consequence of relentless bullying at school and Air Cadets for being gay.

The lack of support Robbie received at these institutions and a fear of how his family and peers might react to him embracing his sexuality, eventually played a part in his decision to leave Coventry.

“Moving away for me was a way of becoming who I wanted to be. If I had gone to Coventry University, I’d still be in the same street hiding who I was.

“You are made to feel bad about who you are, who you love, and how you feel”.

As Robbie progressed through university, he was able to relieve some of the shame he felt growing up and he channelled this into creating positive changes for the LGBT community.

“It took a long time to get rid of that shame and I didn't join my LGBT society in my first-year because I didn't see the point. I was one of those people who would say, ‘Oh, I'm gay, but I'm not that gay’.

“I started campaigning when I realised there is so much wrong with society. I began to realise I was not the problem.

“If I had stayed in Coventry, I am not sure how involved or outspoken I would have been on gay rights or LGBT rights in general”.

For thirty-two-year-old Katie Sullivan, her experience of school differed to both Michaels and Robbies which she puts down to the lack of knowledge surrounding LGBT relationships.

“I didn’t hear of any gay people, so I never had a chance to explore it myself. It was just never a thought process, I thought I was straight.

“Everyone used to fancy my boyfriend at school, and I thought I must do too.

“But you don’t understand that feeling [sexual attraction] until you have actually had it”.

For Katie, anxiety came when she had to tell some of her close friends about her sexuality, aged 19. Growing up, they had shared intimate moments and she feared it would change the relationship between them.

“I was really scared they might think it was because of them… that it was something deeper rooted.

“It was difficult for them at the start and they didn’t really grasp it 100%. They were a bit bemused because I had been with men, like many people were.

“This is why people can have a massive lack of empathy because unless they have physically been through something themselves, it is difficult to put themselves in that mind frame”.

Fast forward to 2021 and how LGBT-inclusive is the UK as a whole?

The latest LGBT survey carried out in 2017, showed that just over half of its respondents (56%) felt comfortable being LGBT+ in the UK. Two thirds (68%) still avoided holding hands in public for fear of negative reactions, and 40% had experienced verbal harassment or threats of violence in the year preceding the survey.

For Robbie, education and dispelling the myths around LGBT+ people is key to tackling discrimination.

“My view on life is different from 20 years ago and I believe in compromise, co-operation and negotiation.

“If someone were to say they didn’t like LGBT plus people, I’d ask them exactly what it is they didn’t like.

“I know I’m not going to meet everyone’s view, but there are lots of stuff that people can agree on and as long as it's consensual, safe, and legal, then what’s the point?”

Robbie now works as governor for a school in Manchester which he is proud to say have fully embraced LGBT-inclusivity into its education.

From summer 2021, all schools in England – including independent and faith schools – must teach LGBT+ content in Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), in line with government guidance set out by the Department of Education (DfE) in 2019.

As every young person should receive an education that reflects the full diversity of the world around us, let us hope these changes bring our LGBT+ young people a future without exclusion.

Two Syrian small business owners struggle to keep serving traditional Syrian food at Shawarma Shack in Coventry city centre.

Most businesses are struggling with inflation. Even big names closed many of their branches to be able to survive. Small businesses are the ones who are hit the most. Shawarma Shack in Coventry is one of them.

This shawarma house is the only Syrian food place that opened last year in Coventry since the refugees started to arrive in the city in 2014. Ahmad Al Shiekha and Taha Al Abdullah, partners of Shawarma Shack, are from Homs, Syria.

Due to the war in Syria, they were forced to flee the country and started a new journey in the UK, full of challenges. Mr Al Abdullah says, “We faced many obstacles before being able to start this business including the licensing, which took too long. This is due to the bureaucracy that we’re not used to in our country. In the end, we did it and here we are serving Syrian shawarma in Coventry.

Today, and after a year only, inflation is massively affecting us. The increase in fuel price and cost of primary ingredients make it very challenging for our business. We are trying to keep our prices as they are because we have the cheapest food in Coventry city centre and want to stay the cheapest so all people can afford to enjoy our food.”

Their first business was a takeaway shop in Hillfields but it didn’t survive for more than a few months. So they had to close it and look for a better location. Now, they are in the city centre.

Mr Al Shiekha started to work towards starting his own business after a year of arriving in the UK. He says, “We want to introduce Syrian food culture to the British community.”

The two partners have a family spirit and share all the shop’s responsibilities.  Mr Al Abdullah says, ”Like all the Syrians, we lost our families in the war, some lost their lives and the others are resettled all over the world. I’m grateful that we found each other here. Our unity is our strength.”

He is qualified in hospitality management and has been in the UK for six years. He adds, “We want to prove to the world that Syrian people are productive and love to work.”

Al Shiekha adds, “We are a new business and the price increase doesn’t help at all. It’s very difficult with high tax rates, employees' wages and everything becoming more and more expensive."Untitled design 1


Due to inflation, some prices doubled and tripled in a very short time. After the war in Ukraine, oil prices doubled in three months only. Eggs, chips, packaging costs and energy prices are a few examples of what Shawarma Shack suffers from price rises, especially with chicken and meat. Besides the shortages in vegetables. And because it’s a new business they can’t change the prices to follow the market.

This doesn’t prevent the two Syrian chefs from helping and supporting others. They donate three per cent of their monthly profit to people in need in Syria.

After the earthquake crisis, the two partners decided to support the affected people in Turkey and Syria and did two days of fundraising. All their profit of £6000 was sent to help families in need through the Ummah Welfare Trust. Al Abdullah comments, “This is the least we can do to support people in need.”



They both dream of progressing to a big chain. Al Abdullah emphasised that Syrians have the ability to adapt and turn any dead area into a successful working place. 

He says, “We are creative and skilled people and came to the UK to show our skills and we will use them to give back to this country. We would love to integrate into British society and serve food that everyone loves and enjoys. We always look for new ways of serving our food and flavour to other societies.”

His partner Al Shiekha adds, “Thanks to the British community who accepted and welcomed us here.”

Engineering student Ahmad sits, alone in his room, staring at a bottle of sleeping pills. Taking all those pills, he thinks, will solve all of his problems.

In 21 August 2017 the National student survey revealed that 82% of students at UK universities suffer from stress and more worrying than that, one in five students have had suicidal feelings. Students who have poor organizational skills tend to experience more stress in schools and colleges, usually because they are not properly prepared for the challenges ahead of them. Lack of support from parents and teachers can also add a lot of stress in students and they may feel that a lot is expected from them. This is a cause of stress that can affect hard working students in particular. 

“Student’s stress is higher than general public,” says Doctor Abdullah Umer Rehan Physiatrist in city hospital Peterborough. “Approximately 80% in random stressed students did not get the mental health care they needed, stressed students cannot learn and also that stressed students are more abused more than others when they are in stress.” 

There is no specific treatment for stress. “But there are some treatments which could help,” says Dr Abdullah. “Talking with trained professionals can help you learn to deal with stress; Cognitive behaviour therapy is a type of talking treatment which helps you”. The expert also left some advice for people who are struggling with this problem: “Talk with someone who could not judge you, do some exercise. Swimming is a better option, watch entertaining movies, spend time with family, read books, do not stay alone, try to be social and creative, try to love yourself, these things, help to resolve complicated feelings or try to find a way to live with them.” 

Stress manifests itself when people feel burdened and they do not know how to overcome those problems. Some students have study tension when their exams are near or when their projects deadlines are closing, and in many cases, students stress more about their love life then their studies. There is also work tension, when people feel big amounts of pressure to finish their tasks in the intended. 

“I am always in stress because I have a lot of pressure from University,” says Muhammad Pasha, a physiotherapy student at Coventry University. He complains stress has taken over his life and that all he does is think about university tasks and little more than that. He even claims that they gave me a lot of work to do, “I have a lot of assignments, presentations, and exams, I cannot eat properly I cannot sleep properly, I have a lot of pain in my shoulders, my mind always stuck in studies. Sometimes I motivate myself saying that these problems are temporary, but somehow I am not getting out of this problem”. 

Ahmad, the mechanical engineering student from University of central Peterborough thought seriously about suicide due to all the pressure he was feeling but he never took those sleeping pills. “I could not handle the pressure of work and study at same time; this pressure brings anxiety, depression, tension and stress together and I cannot manage both things. With this I feel pain in my shoulders, I feel lazy and I get headaches. I’m also irritated by usual things, sometimes I cannot even breathe easily. Some days ago, I visited my family doctor, who claimed this was all because of stress, he gave me some medicines and further recommended me to join the gym, and go out for morning walks to get rid of this problem”.

Ahmad is doing better and with a smile on his face he confesses that “I’m feeling better now because i have finished my exams”. 

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