We Are Essex

Zeina's story

Headshot of Zeina Alsharkas

"I want to bring hope to all refugees that they will be able one day to choose the direction they want to take in life."

In August 2019 I will swim the English Channel. I will swim from England to France, which is the opposite direction from which the refugees come to the UK to show the incoherence of war and to send a message of peace and hope. I’ve chosen my direction in the way that I’m going to swim and, by doing so, I want to bring hope to all refugees that they will be able one day to choose the direction they want to take in life.

I come from Syria. I’ve been living in the UK for 6 years, I’ve done my studies and now I’m working so I feel very grateful and lucky that I have achieved what I have achieved. I couldn’t stand idle seeing people from my country still risk their lives everyday crossing the sea to seek refuge.

I used to swim with the Syrian national team and I competed in national and international competitions. I was the national champion for 50m and 100m butterfly. I also wanted to continue higher education so once I finished my undergrad degree I came here to study my Masters. This was at the same time as the war was going on, so I thought one year – I would do my Honorary Masters and then I would go back home, you know, get back to swimming, get back to everything. But the situation didn’t get any better back home so I thought I’d do further education. So I started my PhD degree, specialising in the empirical analysis of competition, in particular, in innovative markets, which I’ve now completed. I wanted to study abroad; I wanted to come to England to do my Masters degree. When I did my research I was looking for a university which is very diverse, where I will be able to meet people from all around the world. I felt that Essex would be very valuable and enrich my experience.

Given that I was a swimmer for the national team in Syria, I thought this was quite a natural reaction for me to share the struggles that refugees go through to be safe by swimming the English Channel. I didn’t have to go through this dangerous journey, but I wanted to swim the English Channel in a symbolic act that embodies the sentiments and the efforts that my compatriots go through.

I had a long gap from swimming; I haven’t done swimming for 6 years, since I was 21, now I’m 27. For me, getting back to swimming and seeing myself be able to do it again is amazing. I feel very happy about it. On Saturday I swam about 19km for 6 hours non-stop. It was my first experience swimming for a distance like that. I’ve always been a sprinter, a short distance swimmer so my sessions used to be 5km or 6km, roughly 2 hours. I’m trying to build up long distance swimming so I did 6 hours with really little stops to have energy drinks or food. It’s very similar to what I’ll be doing in the Channel. I was just very happy to be able to do 6 hours, I didn’t get bored, I was enjoying it, I was excited. I’m training for the swim on my own following a plan that is written by my coach. My swimming pool is just 2 minutes away so I finish my work and I just go swim which is brilliant. The swim will be a solo attempt.

I love teaching, I really love teaching and I enjoy it genuinely. But also I would like to do something that can help people, especially with what’s going on back home. Since I love swimming I want to do something with it to help people so hopefully this project is a first step. I’m aiming to open or work with a charity, so in a month or so I will open a fundraiser that goes directly to help children in refugee camps.

A PhD is very demanding and a difficult academic achievement, but doing my PhD alongside being uncertain, worried and scared about the safety of my family and friends back home - that was a big challenge. I’m very happy that I managed to complete a PhD under these difficult circumstances. Also, I’m proud that I managed to transfer my life experience into this project which is bringing positivity and happiness into my life every day.

My biggest struggle is seeing and meeting with my family. I miss the rebalance or recharging that you get from going home. For example, when I had my Masters Graduation and PhD Graduation my family couldn’t come. I also couldn’t be home for Eid Fest for years, which is like not being able to be at home for Christmas. Seeing family is a luxury.

There’s no specific person that inspires me. I think any person can inspire me, anyone that has gone through a lot in life but they can still smile. People back home who have gone through the war and they are resilient in the face of adversity. Anyone with dreams or goals regardless of how big or small, anyone who can fight for their dreams and try to achieve them – they’re all inspiring.

On a daily basis, just knowing my family back home are okay makes me smile. A phone call from my mum just saying that she’s fine and wishing me good luck makes my day. When I receive positive feedback from students - that makes me so smiley, or after I finish a lecture that I feel I’ve done well in, I feel very happy. Just the fact that I have such supportive friends here in the UK from all over the world makes me happy.

If I had to live by a motto is would be ‘just do the thing that makes you happy’. Maybe it’s cheesy but do the thing that makes you feel alive. So for me, I just love being in the water. A morning swim is just the best thing ever. No matter where the life or work take me, I think it’s very nice to have swimming on the side. For me swimming brings balance to my life and makes me keep on going.

 

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