14 June 2020
Adnan Walid Elbi, a Syrian asylum seeker, died in Room 50 of the Mclays Guest House in Glasgow earlier this year. The Mears Group, a Home Office sub contracted asylum landlord, forcibly moved him there during the Global Pandemic and Lockdown. Adnan’s family were left devastated by his death.
This article retraces Adnan’s nine year journey to get refuge – a goal which ultimately eluded him. It tells Adnan’s story through the lens of his family, his own statements to the Home Office and his final words five days before he died. Why did he leave Syria? How did he end up in Glasgow? And what was going on in the final days before he died?
At the beginning of May, I got a call from a Syrian Cardiologist and member of the British Druze Society. Dr Bashir Alaour was seeking help with burial arrangements for a Syrian man in Glasgow. The young man’s mother wanted his body returned to Syria, and Bashir heard that I had helped with previous repatriations through our charity. He put me in touch with the young man’s brother, and Abdul Khalifa, an Arabic interpreter based in Glasgow, also Syrian.
Fajr was uncommunicative at first, clearly in shock. He sent me photos of his brother. I think I met him briefly once at the lifts of our office building. We exchanged salaam and he got out on the fourth floor. He exuded sadness.
Adnan aged around eleven years old with his mother and younger siblings in Libya.
Adnan Walid Elbi was born on January 25, 1990 in Zlitan, Libya, the eldest son of 5 brothers and 4 sisters, to parents, Walid and Houda, Syrian nationals and Druze Muslims.
He left school at 14 to join his father in the house building trade. His family describe him as a happy person then, sensitive, hardworking and dutiful towards his parents. Fajr says that Syrians experienced a lot of discrimination in Libya.
Some years later, the family had to return to their hometown of As-Suwayda, a mainly Druze city located in southwestern Syria, close to the border with Jordan, which contains many archaeological sites that related to the civilizations of the Babylonians, Sumerians, Phoenicians and Romans.
In March 2011, the Syrian war broke out. There was no work to be found in As Suwayada. Adnan got married in June. As a young Syrian man he feared enforced military service, killing his own people or being killed by the Syrian regime or the rebels. With his wife, parents and younger siblings to support, Adnan travelled back to Libya to find work and send money home.
The Libyan Civil War was coming to an end but the country was now infiltrated by extremists. As a “non Libyan”, Adnan was “detained” by members of Ansar Al Sharia, a branch of ISIS. He was beaten repeatedly and subjected to humiliating torture, the details of which his family do not wish to be disclosed. Adnan recalled seeing people being slaughtered, and carrying these experiences throughout the rest of his asylum journey. He suffered anxiety, sleep disturbances and flashbacks.
Fajr, brother of Adnan
With the Syrian conflict significantly worsenng, Adnan’s younger brother Fajr left Syria in 2012. A year younger than Adnan, he paid human traffickers, made the boat journey and then reached Sweden. There he was quickly accepted as a refugee, helped to find a home, work and made friends. Within a year of his arrival, he was “resettled” for life. His photograph above is starkly different from his brother’s. He urged Adnan to join him.
In September 2014, Adnan travelled by sea on a week-long trip in smuggling boats, until he reached Italy. He travelled through several European countries in the hope of reaching Sweden.
He was stopped in Denmark and applied for asylum. He was granted 5 years temporary protected status in December of that year. He found it hard to fit into Danish society, work and language, but he wanted to make the best of it.
In June 2015, Danish voters ousted their center-left government in a clear swing to the right that unexpectedly elevated an anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party that had been on the margins of the country’s politics.
Adnan found “voluntary work” as a car mechanic. Between January and August 2017, he trained unpaid for six months in an abattoir and then got “formal work” and was paid for two months.
Syrian refugees in Denmark protest the country’s racist asylum policies.
He applied for family reunion so that his wife could join him, but his application was refused. Some time later, he went to renew his residency permit. He was asked to sign a document agreeing to voluntarily return to Syria, now deemed safe by the Danish Immigration Service. Adnan refused to sign, terrified of deportation and being tortured or forced to join the military or rebels.
In July 2018, Adnan’s father, Walid, was shot dead by ISIS members who stormed the normally peaceful villages surrounding As Suwayda. This was documented in news coverage, and a photograph of Walid was paraded through the streets alongside other “martyrs”. Walid was a charismatic and honourable man.
Adnan’s mother, Houda, recalls that someone from the other village had called Walid and others to come and help, telling them that ISIS had rounded up women in their village. Walid and other villagers did not hold back, he took his shotgun and drove with the men to the village, they heard gunfire and Walid threw himself from his car. He was shot 12 times in the head and body.
Adnan’s father Walid, Syria
Adnan’s father smiles beside his beloved white horse, his thick blue jumper tucked into his belted trousers on a crisp spring morning. Fajr recalled: “My father loved his horse, after he died, the horse refused to eat out of sadness and also died after a few days”.
In Denmark, the increasingly hardline attitude towards refugees created considerable unease amongst the country’s Syrian community, in particular its policy of sending refugees back to Syria.
Adnan despaired about his increasingly bleak future; his father’s death caused much mental anguish; his wife was not allowed to join him, and now the country that offered him temporary protection was increasingly hostile to refugees and intent on returning refugees to a war zone.
Adnan’s Danish visa was running out, so he told his brother he was going to try to reach the U.K., because there was “freedom and human rights”.
On December 15, 2018, he took a bus to Germany, then flew to Dublin arriving in London, two days later.Adnan found work delivering newspapers for 5 or 6 months.
“I left Denmark because my life was in danger and I thought the U.K. was the safest place to come to” he recounted.
In July 2019, Adnan was detained by U.K. immigration authorities and sent to Dungavel IRC indefinitely. He got himself a Glasgow solicitor. He then received news from home that his youngest brother had been kidnapped. Adnan cut himself with a metal blade and was put on suicide watch. He was released six weeks later.
From October 2019, Adnan went to stay in a night shelter, guests could enter from 8 pm, get a meal, bed and breakfast, but had to leave by 8 am each day. The following month, he attended an asylum screening interview in Liverpool.
In late November/early December, Adnan was provided with temporary accommodation in 30 St Andrews Square, Glasgow. He stayed in a self-contained flat and cooked food for himself on his allowance of £5.39 a day.
He lived at St Andrews Square for around four months. We don’t know the dates because Mears Group refused to provide them, even though Adnan’s brother had mandated both the Home Office and the Mears Group to tell us.
Up until this point, Mears Group were fairly cooperative, agreeing to post Adnan’s belongings from his hotel room to Sweden. But once we asked for these dates, Mears passed us onto the Home Office, who then demanded various forms of documentation to prove that Fajr was related to Adnan, as well as the death certificate.
Why did Mears withhold this information? Probably because its contentious, Mears had caused a lot of public anger when they moved hundreds of vulnerable people – during a global pandemic and Lockdown – into communal guest houses and hotels all over Glasgow, effectively creating hotspots of potential Covid 19 outbreaks. How much this move impacted on Adnan’s mental health will now never be known.
On Jan 23rd 2020, Adnan attended Festival Court in Glasgow for a Home Office asylum interview. He told immigration authorities about his fear of returning to Syria
“If I go back, the authorities will detain me and force me to join the army, to complete my compulsory military service. They will force me to carry weapons to kill people. I am worried I would either be killed, or I would have to kill others. I don’t want to have to do this, or be in this situation. I am scared of both the regime and the rebels. The regime is a violent regime which is well-known, and the rebels are just as bad but on the other side. I left Denmark because they want to send me back to Syria.”
Adnan informed the Home Office about his anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks. He was taking painkillers prescribed by his GP for back pain as a result of beatings on his back that were inflicted in Libya.
He broke down when asked about the details of the torture he suffered in Libya, the Home Office Interviewer decided not to probe further and asked if he wanted help. Adnan said yes, he definitely would welcome such support. But there is no evidence of anything that the Home Office did to help him, despite knowing that here was a young man reporting that he had suffered torture and had thoughts of suicide.
Adnan was asked why he came to the U.K. since he had been granted asylum in Denmark. He told them his reasons. His ultimate hope, he said, was that his asylum claim would be accepted in the U.K. and that he could apply for family reunion with his wife and begin his life.
Towards the end of March 2020, Adnan was one of 370 asylum seekers forcibly moved from their homes and transported 4 or 5 to a van into hotela, where social distancing in lifts and dining areas was impossible. He was now staying in Room 50, at the McLays Guest House in the centre of Glasgow, alongside 90 other asylum seekers going through their own stress, depression and trauma.
Many of the “hotel asylum seekers” reported that when they were moved from their homes they were simultaneously stripped of their meagre cash or card payments.
Consequently, the men and women were unable to buy basic essentials like medicine, toiletries, mobile phone top ups, food or bus tickets.
The Home Office claimed, “there has been no changes to when cash allowances are provided to asylum seekers”.
Mears contradicted this by saying: “Handling coins and bank notes is thought to spread Covid-19 and Mears believe that by switching to a fully catered service this will further reduce the likelihood of asylum-seekers becoming infected in this way.”
The decision to uproot people from their homes and then withdraw these payments during a global pandemic and Lockdown would have made Adnan’s life unbearable. Around this time, his family was asking him to send money to Syria for his mothers hospital treatment. As the eldest son he had responsibilities, how would he explain to his family that he was forbidden to work and given no money whatsoever?
Standing in his shoes, imagine what it feels like to have the derisory sum of £5.39 a day taken from you without notice or explanation, and told to remain in your hotel room almost 24/7. The last freedom of being able to cook your own food is also taken away from you. How easy is it, mentally, to be uprooted with only half an hours’ notice at a time of such uncertainty?
This was something Fajr, who got asylum under the Swedish system, could not understand. He was shocked that his elder brother had been surviving like this. He asked why Mears stopped even that derisory sum. Because they decided he did not need it. “How can he not need money?” Fajr replied. This devastated Fajr further, the fact that he had been left penniless.
Around this time, Adnan’s mother was seriously ill from colon failure in Syria. The family needed money to pay the hospital bills. With no money or right to work, Adnan could do nothing to help. The guilt played on him, nothing seemed to be working out.
On April 30 2020, Adnan gave a statement to his lawyer confirming that he had attempted to kill himself. The Home Office had requested details of the times he felt suicidal as they were made aware he was recently discharged from the hospital.
Adnan’s statement of April 30 reads as follows:
“My name is Adnan Elbi and my date of birth is 25th January 1990. I am a Syrian national and I currently reside at McLays Guest House, Room 50, 264/276 Renfrew Street, Charing Cross, Glasgow, G3 6TT.
“I have been asked to provide details about feeling suicidal and the previous times I attempted to kill myself.
“On the first occasion it was in Denmark around July 2018 after my father died. My father died on 25th July 2018. My father has been shot dead by ISIS. They shot him 12 times, including head shots. This was devastating for me and caused me the most shock and upset. When I heard about it I began thinking of killing myself but didn’t.
“On the second occasion it was in the detention centre, Dungavel IRC in 2019, I cannot recall the date. It was after my brother was kidnapped by ISIS. Again I became very upset and distressed as I know ISIS would mistreat him and worse kill him, like they did my father. I kept thinking I was never going to see him or speak with him ever again. This time I tried to harm myself with metal blade by cutting my wrists. I was then seen by the Dr in the detention centre. The Dr calmed me down by speaking with me and I was then put on 24hr suicide watch by the guards.
“The most recent incident which led me to attempt to take my own life was due to my mother being hospitalised, as she is suffering from colon failure.
“The family are calling me looking for financial support for the medical costs but I don’t have any money and not allowed to work. The family blame me for not helping, saying I should be able to work and send money, others similar to me have been helping their families.
“I am the eldest son and all the pressure is on me to help the family. I feel hopeless and helpless. I feel that if my mother gets worse it is all my fault. I don’t know when I will get my asylum decision and be allowed to get work to help my mother. I wanted to kill myself but I didn’t know how to and I was going out of my mind.
“I contacted the emergency services for help and they sent me an ambulance which took me to the hospital. At the hospital I waited for around 3 hours. I was not seen by any doctor, I was told there was no one available to see me and that they could not do anything for me. I was upset and angry, as I wanted help. I then walked back to my accommodation.
I will be killed if I go back to Syria. In Denmark, the problem was that, in order to renew my right to remain there as a refugee, I would have had to sign a document saying that the Danish authorities could send me back to Syria when they said there were safe areas there for me to be returned to. I refused to sign the document because I cannot return to Syria. I am scared if I return to Denmark they will not let me stay there, and deport me back to Syria.
“My fear of ISIS is very strong as I was mistreated by them in Libya, they killed my father and kidnapped my brother, who has been released but is in very poor physical and mental health condition. I have not seen my family or my wife in a long time and I was hoping to have her here in the UK by now with me. This has impacted on my mental health as well as I don’t have her here for emotional support. I just wish my asylum claim to be decided so I can do something with my life, give me meaning and hope to help my family.”
Five days later, Adnan was found dead in his room at Mclays Guest House.
None of our lives run in straight lines. Before he died, Adnan suffered multiple pressures trying to flee war and persecution, resettle safely in an increasingly hostile world, and honour his family obligations. Instead of finding refuge, he was hounded out by Denmark’s racist policies. He was terrified of being returned to Syria. In the U.K., he was detained indefinitely, forbidden to work, and reduced to a state of destitution while struggling with his mental health. He was then uprooted from the only “home” he had before being forcibly dumped at short notice in a guest house during Lockdown, with not a penny to live on, relying on the state for his food and shelter.
Adnan was buried in an Islamic Ceremony on May 15 in Glasgow following a post-mortem. The cause of death was identified as “un-ascertained pending investigation” , toxicology results will take 6 to 9 months. At the burial, Abdul Khalifa put Fajr on the phone and described everything that happened during the ten minute socially distanced ceremony. A video recording was also made to be sent onto the family.Just a few days ago, Fajr received two suitcases and a ruck sack in the post, and one empty wallet. His mobile phone is missing, his black boots and fossil watch still waiting to be collected from the local Police.
This account is based on Adnan’s own words, also legal documents and details provided posthumously by his lawyer, mother and brother. Thanks to Abdul Khalifa who so skillfully interpreted for Adnan’s mother, Houda, also to The British Druze Society and so many people who contributed to the costs of his burial. Glasgow Central Mosque has asked that donations for the burial should be given to Adnan’s family.
postscript: we wrote to the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to ask for help to bring Adnan's mother to Glasgow from Syria to visit her son's grave but unfortunately never got a reply.