KHULOOD Mamkalo will swap Syrian snipers for a new battleground – at the Great Western Hospital

The mum of five was forced to flee war-torn northern Syria in 2016. She escaped to the UK with husband Abdin Omar, her five children and just a backpack of belongings.

And the left behind a busy shop, which – on the eve of the war – was producing up to 25 pairs of glasses a day in Afrin, a city 60km northwest of Aleppo where war re-erupted last month.

The Syrian civil war devastated her opticians business – and almost killed Khulood and her children, who six times attempted to escape across the border into Turkey. 

The 37-year-old said her children still had nightmares: “All of them have problems when they are sleeping at night. All of them are afraid. They say, ‘Mummy, the bombs are coming’. When there’s an aeroplane in the sky and they’re playing outside, they all run in.”

Now living in north Swindon, Khulood hopes later this year to start a new volunteer role at GWH. 

She set up her opticians’ aged 20. She said: “I miss making glasses. I built my business, I built my future. But the war destroyed everything.”

In Swindon, Khulood approached opticians’ firms for work and even voluntary positions – but was turned down over concerns about the quality of her English. 

She told the Adver: “Two of the companies say that my English is not very good and maybe a misunderstanding will happen with you and customers. I say, ‘In the lab you don’t need to speak with people’. The prescriptions are all the same.”

Khulood has enrolled on an English course at Swindon College and is hoping to start as a GWH volunteer later this year. She is one of dozens of refugees supported through Broadgreen-based charity the Harbour Project’s Steps2Work project. Swindon is one of four “dispersal towns” in the south west, where refugees are housed while their asylum claims are processed.

Co-ordinator Bronwyn Young says that the Steps2Work scheme, which has been running since January, is already proving successful. 

“One of our guys moved in four months from working irregular night shifts in a warehouse to a position as a web-designer,” she said. 

“We’ve successfully placed two others in full-time employment, have another two in voluntary placements or training, with a waiting list to get into the programme.”

The scheme offers refugees a chance to give back – as well as get on.
Bronwyn said: “Many refugees like Khulood come from cultures that value community. 

“What they want to do here is enrich the Swindon community.” 

Many of those arriving in Swindon from abroad are skilled workers – doctors, geologists and teachers. Khulood, who graduated second in her year on the Aleppo Health Institute’s opticians’ course, is among them.

Bronwyn added: “We’re developing through Harbour a way to develop volunteers for the hospital. It will give refugees the chance to say thank you and give back to the community. The hospital needs people and we’ve got people who just want to be part of something – and part of the community.”

Initially, it is expected that Khulood will shadow an experienced volunteer at GWH. She is hoping to volunteer at the hospital’s eye clinic later in the year.

Oonagh Fitzgerald, HR director at GWH, said: “We are delighted to provide Khulood with a position that allows her to continue doing a job she truly loves.

“Supporting people to reach their full potential is what the NHS is all about and I’m really pleased that Khulood will once again be able to put her skills to good use as part of our team at GWH. 

“Our trust is made up of people from all over the world and it’s this diverse mix of people that not only makes the NHS a really rewarding place to work, but such an attractive employer to so many colleagues from overseas.”