HASSAN AYO is rightly proud of the round and ripe fruit and veg growing on his Coventry allotment. He shows off the courgettes and the cucumbers, the runner beans ready to be picked, the strawberries and the parsley. He offers a freshly picked tomato to taste, and it is wonderfully juicy.
“Fresh, not like in the shops,” he says, smiling. “It’s organic. All organic here.”
The 47-year-old Hassan could be just another green-fingered enthusiast at the allotments off Humber Road in Stoke. But he has had to come farther than most to get here, crossing countries and a continent, escaping a dreadful war, and suffering the most appalling tragedy along the way.
Hassan is probably the best qualified gardener at the allotments. He studied at university to be an agricultural scientist and for years was responsible for overseeing the production of crops on five hectares of land for a large food company. The firm had more than 25,000 hectares under cultivation near his home town of Ras Al-Ain in Al-Hasakah in Syria, about 80km from the Turkish border.
Hassan was also a human rights activist and when the Syrian civil war started in 2011, life changed forever for him, his wife Fatimah, who was a schoolteacher, and their three children.
The war came to Al-Hasakah when the Free Syrian Army occupied the city and the regime tried to fight back with an indiscriminate bombing campaign which cost countless lives. Like many others, Hassan and his family had to flee their home to escape the violence.
In 2012, with little more than the clothes they wore, they crossed into Turkey and found safety in a refugee camp where they would stay for two years.
But then tragedy struck.
The couple’s daughter, Sozdar, became seriously ill with a heart condition and the family were told that only a transplant could save her life. In the refugee camp, a transplant was out of the question, and they all knew it.
To buy the 14-year-old time, Hassan said, Sozdar was given a battery operated heart support system. The batteries would last for six months, they were told. Sadly, when the batteries ran out, Sozdar died.
That was days before Christmas, 2014. Just two months later, the devastated family were told they would be among the first of the Syrian refugees to be evacuated to the UK as part of the British government’s resettlement programme.
Now, a year into their new life, you might expect a trace of bitterness. Instead, although they are still coming to terms with their terrible loss, there’s gratitude and optimism.
Hassan, who a year ago could speak no English, now knows enough to explain that his two sons, Zerdsht, 14, and Zana, 10, enjoy school in Coventry and are much more fluent than their dad. And his wife, who developed diabetes during their long ordeal, is getting the treatment she needs.
“We are very happy here, very happy,” Hassan said.
Hassan keeps busy volunteering at the Peace House in Coventry, and at the city’s Refugee and Migrant Centre. He also helps to keep the garden at the Bishop’s House in Earlsdon under control.
But it’s at the allotment that he uses the talents he developed back in Syria. He shares it with two other Syrian refugees and together they have enough produce to eat cheaply and healthily, and to share with their friends.
The next step, Hassan hopes, is to find more land so he can expand and grow not just fruit and veg, but a business.
“Maybe in the future I can make a business,” he said. “I hope for a big area to make two, three gardens, maybe have bees.
“I don’t want benefits, I want to work. I can work. It’s better than waiting in the Jobcentre.”
Hassan’s only regret now is that his family is hopelessly split with his mother and one brother still in Syria, and other siblings in Germany and Belgium.
“I talk to my mother every day,” he said. “My father last year died in Syria. It’s very difficult.”
But he’s full of gratitude to the country that took in him and his family. He said: “Britain has given us a home, our future is here. Britain is our new country, our new home.”
CRMC Director Sabir Zazai said: “The story of how Hassan and his family came through such terrible events and yet still look ahead to building a new life in Coventry is so inspiring.
“It’s especially inspiring to see how determined they are to make a real positive contribution to the life of the city they can now call home.”
Hassan Ayo at his allotment. He hopes one day to grow not just crops, but a flourishing business