This special one off mini series of to is sponsored by Grey Goose, Grey Goose, believe in live victoriously because life, as we know, is full of moments, big and small, planned and spontaneous. And those moments need something worthy of the occasion.
They deserve to be celebrated. Grey Goose does just this.
A vodka of unique quality, expertly crafted for smoothness and exceptional taste, made with the finest ingredients single origin, picardie, wheat and springwater from natural limestone, a distinctive vodka made without compromise to elevate any moment Grey Goose brings fun and positivity, whatever the occasion you're marking, because when you live victoriously, you transform those moments into lasting memories.
Thank you very much to Grey Goose and please drink responsibly.
Hello, it's Elizabeth Day here, and welcome to this one off special mini series of how to fail.
Now, one of the things that you wonderful listeners have repeatedly asked me to do is to feature normal people as guests on the podcast. But of course, there's no such thing as a normal person.
We are all unique and interesting and resilient and contradictory and loving and wise and funny and sad and experienced in our own particular ways. We all have our stories to tell. So in the next four episodes, I'm doing something slightly different. You'll hear from people who aren't necessarily household names about who they are and the moments that shaped them.
You'll hear from them about what it means to live victoriously. It's a different format from usual.
We're not discussing three failures, but we are talking about resilience and what it means to live a fulfilled life. We're talking about difficulties that have been overcome, lessons that have been learned, gratitude that has been earned, and the joy of celebrating the every day. This is how to fail, as you've never heard it before. Ordinary people, extraordinary stories for weeks for different lives, because we can learn from everyone if we just listen carefully enough. Today's guest is Basil DBE.
I'm Basanti, I am 36 years old and been living in London for about seven years now, and I work in tech companies and design operations specialist Basil.
Welcome to the podcast and thank you for making time for us. I so appreciate you being here.
Is it quite surreal being interviewed for a podcast? It's my first experience and I'm a bit nervous, to be honest.
Oh, please don't be nervous at all. It is just a chat between friends. But the reason that I wanted to speak to you, Bussell, is that your story is so inspiring, although I know that you probably don't think of it in that way. Do you think of it in that way?
Well, to be honest, I always thought of my journey so far since I came to the UK as a privileged one in comparison to what other people have been through. No, I don't think of it as that special, to be honest.
So let's start with your childhood. I know the because of news stories, we are all so accustomed to hearing about Syria in quite negative terms. But I would love to know what Syria was like when you were growing up there. What was your childhood like?
Good. I think. I mean, I had a good upbringing. My parents were still very loving and caring. We grew up in a neighbourhood that is quite mixed in terms of religious backgrounds, which is a thing about living in Syria. We don't probably have too much diversity in terms of ethnic backgrounds. Religious backgrounds is quite mix and you don't feel as a minority in Syria in that sense. So, for instance, we were the only Christian family in the building, but yet we've never felt left out.
We celebrated Ramadan with our neighbours. Our neighbours came home for Christmas. So it was always that of like warm community feeling in the country in that sense.
And I always thought, you can tell so much about a country from its food. What was your favorite food when you were a child?
If I have to choose one, it would be what we call stuffed filius, which is technically what it says is finally stuff to mince meat and rice. And it's brilliantly delicious, which I haven't had in ages. It's great.
So for you, it was a very safe community. And I know that it was a very influential point in your life when your mother bought a computer.
So tell us about that. Yeah, I think even as a family, we had our tough times, but we were quite well-off family in comparison to probably the rest of the population. So we had the means to have a PC early on in our lives. So I think I was about 13 or 14 when we had the first book. And at that time, it's a big machine that sits in the living room, obviously. And you may know that you can have Windows interface in Arabic or in English.
And my mom insisted on having it in English. We were trying to have it in Arabic, but that's how we were taught to deal with it in Arabic. But she insisted on having the English and then she brought up a dictionary and she put it next to the machine and she said, Hey, ah, if you need anything, you can look it up. That whole except for the fact that after 15 days we have to send the PC back to maintenance because was just screwed up.
But I think it was one of those moments in life where we started adapting to learning different language. Although English was never my second language, my second language at school was French and I've never actually been taught English as a language. So it was all picked up throughout the years. And I think this is one of those big moment that had allowed us to kind of like get accustomed with the language and with using technology in foreign language.
So you mentioned that you celebrated Christmas and various other religious festivals. How would you celebrate Christmas? Describe to us a typical family day around Christmas time.
I don't know if my family is a physical family day because we're not big on religion, but we still have that gathering around. So Christmas, usually it's very similar to the UK. So you have Christmas Eve where family will gather around. We we would have a stuffed turkey, then everyone will cook their own things. So, for instance, you know, my mum is the oldest in the family, so everyone will gather after my grandfather passed away.
So everyone would go to my mom's place. So we have all the aunties and uncles. You have about 25 people and three but flat. And we will have that sort of like a long eating festival, like, I don't know how many hours. Lots of them will be travelling from different cities. So they will stay over. And then on Christmas Day, a solicitor for us because we're not very religious. So we don't go to the mass.
But I know people go to Mass the night before and on Christmas Day in Damascus. And then you have the lunch, which is literally the leftovers from the. And if there are families around you, you go around and celebrate with them or, you know, wish them well. It's very typical to probably lots of the Christian families to Western countries.
So this life that you depict with a close loving family and a feeling of safety, security and community in Damascus. That all changed with shattering force in 2011 when the war in Syria started. How where were you aware of the impact that that conflict was going to have in 2011?
Not at all. I remember before 2011, it started in Egypt in 2010, early 2011. And I remember watching the news and I was speaking to my dad and I said something like, this happen in here. And we never thought it would be possible for many reasons. On one hand, the regime in Syria is way stronger than the one in Egypt. It's more structured and more tied together. Not necessarily that's a credit to them, but that was what the situation was.
So we haven't seen it happening. But then we knew that the country is struggling and people are always been under that pressure. So there was a possibility now even after it started. So I don't know if you remember back in 2011 when it started, it started all those peaceful protest for about six months without any outcome until the regime started having retaliation in terms of violence. And then people started coming back in the same way and it turned into a sort of like a civil war.
But even within these few months, no one thought they would. It would last for that long. And it's still ongoing. After 10 years. We always thought it would be just around the corner specifically because, you know, we've seen in Egypt, it was on some 17 days that they had that until the president steps down and then they had a bit of change in the government. So we never seen it going that long. And surely no one had seen it becoming a war or becoming violent.
We would never have thought of it that way, Jonathan.
So you came to the UK in 2013, but what for you was the tipping point? What was the moment where you thought, I need to get out of my country and leave my family?
I don't think it's been the plan. Like when I first started thinking about it, it was from a professional perspective. I'd actually started doing an MBA by distance with Edinburgh Business School in 2010. But then I don't feel I can finish it being by distance. And I wanted to move to more on campus study. And I came to the UK in 2010 actually on a tourism visa and went to Edinburgh and went to the university and asked about how can I actually move to on campus and started exploring the options around that.
And I felt that the only way for me to actually be able to afford this is to have a sponsorship. So I started looking for sponsorships in 2011, 2012, and I was lucky to be granted the Sydney sponsorship in 2012 2013 and to be offered the seat and getting university to study. And that's how the journey started from studying to do my master's in the UK.
Tell me about when you had to go back to your flat to retrieve your belongings and what happened then.
So in 2010, after I came from the UK, from my holiday, shortly after that I moved to my flat, which was a small flat they managed to buy right in the suburbs of Damascus, which is literally seven minutes from one of the biggest roundabout in the centre of the city. So it's not like miles away. It's literally two or three kilometres away. So I bought a flat there, refurbished the whole thing and moved in. And probably late 2010, early 2011.
And I managed to live there about a year. At that point, the uprising was getting violent and it became more of combat. And some of us of Damascus, which is the east, what they call this scooter, that the unrest was becoming more severe on that side. And one day I remember waking up that night with the sounds of bullets as if they were fighting underneath our windows. And I remember my friends and colleagues, very close friend of mine, left just opposite to me, so I can literally just open the window and shout and at seven seven.
And I told them we probably need to pack our bags and see to sleep somewhere else tonight and see how things go. And that night turned into five or six at that point when people were saying, you know, things are seems to be normal. So I went to it, the same friend and his brother who also owned a flat in my building. And we went in just to get some stuff out from the flat because it was winter and we didn't have any winter clothes on us.
And we were just literally. Surviving on whatever we put on that backpack six months ago, I went back to my parents place at that point anyway, on that day we decided to go and have a look and see what we can actually get out of the flat. And we had to find the driver to help us move some stuff. The area is just outside of what is a small motorway similar to the North Circular 025. So you have one small junction that you take that exit.
You are literally inside that area and have to take that exit. You turn left and after like 100 meters and you are in sorts of small street to the building. So the minute that you take that exit, there was a turning point for the regime, which just became very, very normal. At that point. There were plenty of them within the city and outside the city. So they stopped there. They see your I.D. and they asked you, what are you doing?
And they took the car and you're gone. And when we got there, there was a queue. So we felt more comfortable that people are actually all going in and out. So it seems like things are getting slightly more normal. And then we went and we passed that checkpoint and after 100 meters, we took the left street. And literally the minute that we turn left, we were stopped by another checkpoint. But this time it was the rebel checkpoints and it caused a to start to understand.
I'm laughing about it now, but trust me, it wasn't a laughing matter. So it took us a bit of time to, like, just comprehend the idea that these two who are fighting, they literally have between them on the a small wall. If they peek from the top of that wall, they can actually see each other. It was crazy. And the guy stopped us and took our I.D. And at that point there was a lot of talk about the rebels being Sunnis and such like conservatives and all of that.
And the three of us were Christian. And you can tell from our ideas, like, for instance, my dad's name is George. So it directly gives away the religious background, although it's not mentioned on our national I.D. yet. The guy when he looked at it, he welcomed us and he called us as brothers and he asked us, what are you doing here? It's not safe. You're literally on the fire line. And we were like, we just need to get some stuff out.
And he was like, Yeah, go in, but be very quick. So we went in and we passed by our building, but underneath our building it was like a movie with heavy machines and sandbags and people scattered around. It felt like a war movie scene because it was so scary for us to see that an experienced first hand and we went around and we parked behind a building and the guys were like, you need to be very quick and taking the stuff.
And they pointed at my building and they said, if you go into that building, just be worried that if you're taking the stairs, obviously, that it just it was shock that you can't take the left. They have to go using the stairs. And it's like, just be careful, because this building is showing on the main road and there are snipers around. And I started running upstairs after I got upstairs, I noticed I was having my suitcase on my back thinking that I'm protecting my head, which is silly because obviously I'm not going to do anything yet alone.
It's an empty suitcase. But anyway, we went to the flat and it was all dark because I had electric shutters on the windows and there's no electricity. So we just tried to grab whatever we can blindly and just went downstairs. I was waiting for my friends to come from their building. When our van driver decided to answer a phone call, he was saying, yeah, we were just two meters and not too far. Just after the checkpoint to the left.
Yeah, it's not far. And then I heard this guy who was storming towards him and shouting, saying, why are you getting our location, who you are giving our location to, who you are talking to, hang up the phone and all of that. And he was accusing him of being, you know, informative for the regime and he's getting the location of the rebels. And so that shouting and threatening him to take him to prison. And then I was literally standing in the middle between these two times goes so slowly in these moment, probably was like less than two minutes.
But, you know, all that you can think of that this guy can literally just shoot the one in front of my face. I can't do anything about it. I tried to intervene, which was silly of me as well. It's not like say to him that way. The guy is with us, there's no harm. And and he said to me, well, give me your ideas. Well, then and then he asked them to call back and to put the person on speakerphone.
The rebel guy started pretending that he's part of the intelligence and the regime and trying to trick the other person on the call to say anything that would give any information that would tell if the driver is actually with or against them. Luckily, the guy did not say anything. He would just stay neutral in his answers. And the rebel guy seemed to be the leader of the group there. He was satisfied and he let us leave. And at that moment, they were like, you need to move very quick.
Because the checkpoints will be closed and a bit, I don't know, I still wanted to say I don't know how they knew that we drove around. We went back to that site on the main road trying to go to the exits again to the motorway. So they have to queue again on the checkpoint of the regime. And suddenly the whole queue stopped. And two seconds after the shooting started and we were literally in the middle. So all we can do is to follow everyone else was doing, which is take a U-turn and drive further down in the suburbs and sort of like Hazari at that point and keep driving, not knowing when we're going to go out or somewhere where they're already dead or whatever.
It took us about three hours to go round to different exits and go back. And at that point, that was the last time I've seen that area. And I told my friends, forget about it because it will be bombed soon because these people are literally under our building. So you can forget about the building, which was the case.
The building was which was your home. You had to forget about your home.
Yeah, yeah. It was literally everything that I had in saving of 10 years of working in that flat. Also with the help of my parents, my brother had sat in that building. My friend had a flat in the building next to it and his brother had a flat and my building. So we were trying to kind of like create a sense of community in that area. And we moved in all together seamlessly and we all lost our houses that are flat.
General Russell, I'm so sorry that you went through that you managed to get to the UK, and I know that you had a limited amount of savings in your pocket to live on and you started volunteering at the credit union. But in order to save money, you couldn't afford a bus fare. So you used to walk to and from your work every day.
And while you were doing that, you were applying for asylum, which I know is a very difficult and often exhausting process. Can you tell us a little bit about what that's like to go through seeking asylum?
I think the difficult part of it is not going through the process is understanding and accepting the fact, which is that you're not going back. I think that's the tricky part and that's the most difficult to make peace with. And then you get hit by the Home Office processes to make it even worse. To be honest, the process itself is not, if you think about it, if you stand outside and just read about the process, it's not that.
But living the process is a different thing. You know, I don't blame anyone because they're overwhelmed with cases. Going to the Home Office was an experience by itself because it's really, really challenging emotionally to be there. And I can only imagine those people who are doing this job every day talking to people who I mean, God knows what stories they hear. So I can't blame them if they are not the most happy people and their jobs. So that comes across, obviously, when you are on the receiving part of it to make that decision, to make peace with it and accept that you can't go back.
And different people have that for different reasons. And then you you go through the process of July, you would literally just wait. You don't know when you don't know for how long. You don't know what's going to happen next. There's very few support. I mean, I consider myself an educated person. I can find my own information. I can seek advice from what I can. And I was already struggling to do a lot. So you often rely on people that, you know, they ask if they've been through it before, if they know anyone who has been through it before and try to I can understand what's going to happen next or what's the best way to go ahead with it.
So you have your first session was the screening session, which is literally just to take your application through and take the first statement. Then you wait again without knowing how long. I was really lucky that my whole process took about four months. I know people who want a straightforward case as the Syrian case. It took them about nine months to get the outcome. It's a waiting game. And you then wait until you have your case heard by a case worker at one point, which is an interesting process.
They ask you to speak to someone on the phone without giving any information of who you are. They will speak to you in your native language and the dialect of the city that you claim that you came from. So as you can imagine, the north of Syria would have a slightly different accent than the sounds. And if you're claiming that he's coming from Aleppo, which is in the north, they would have someone from that city speaking to you about the town itself, about how to get from A to B, about what you've done in your life to to you go out with your friends and try to see if you're trying to trick the system by claiming that you are Syrian from Aleppo.
But you're not just a clever person, to be honest, but. It is weird because they don't tell you what's going to happen. They just ask you to answer the phone, for instance, it must make you feel so uncertain and so stuck in a kind of limbo at the same time as you are carrying on and living your life and volunteering at the credit union. And I know you received your grant for asylum on Christmas Eve in 2014. And on the 2nd of January 2015, you had a job at the credit union and you started paying taxes.
And I just really think that's so important for everyone to hear that you wanted to be a member of society and that your story, despite what you went through, is such a story of triumph over adversity. And I wanted to ask you, Passell, what do you think those experiences of living in a war zone for two years, then going through the asylum system, what has that taught you about resilience?
I mean, it's a very unique thing to go through. And I can understand how difficult it might be for others to actually feel it, because you can't until you are in these shoes, you can you can try to empathize with the situation. But having to start your life from scratch is one thing. I'm sure there are plenty of people who had to do that. But having to start from scratch with a new country, a new language with a badge of refugee, which I take it with honor, but lots of people treated differently.
And the fact that you are not allowed to work while you're waiting for your asylum, I must say that sometimes they get that right. But I didn't have it. But at the same time, you want to do something, otherwise you go mental and you wanted to fill your time to contribute to building a life which they are sort of like holding you from starting because of the waiting process. And that's why I started volunteering again. I still think of it as I've been really lucky with everything that I went through.
I'm sure that a lot of people have been through way worse journeys, but I was lucky in the way that things have worked out for me, the fact that I started volunteering and literally the first day of the following year I had a job which was being me part time salary, but it made me feel part of the community made me feel part of a new society that I'm trying to go in. I think this moment matters and building that resilience, it's this cycle of internal validation is important.
Otherwise the resilience by itself, I don't think it will be enough for the long run.
I love that so much. It's those everyday moments that because of what you've been through, you're probably especially equipped to notice that give you, as you say, that internal validation that lends you the strength to keep going. But I know that you have had an interesting journey in terms of celebrating the every day, because in the past you won't waste it. But you've got better, haven't you, Basil? Tell us about the beach trip. That's one of my favorite stories.
Well, I mean, for context, as you mentioned, honestly, I didn't know that I felt and celebrating my life until I started doing therapy sessions while I was working and doing those sessions with my therapist. We talked about this concept and we talked about how all of this journey that I've been through from getting that first letter of introduction to do my scholarship interview, for instance, to get into scholarship, the visa, studying, graduating, get a distinction in my master's, getting asylum and finding a job and then moving to London and all of that.
I've noticed I've never actually stopped and being happy and celebrate these milestones or these achievements in life. It was always a breeze, sort of like a treadmill race from point A to B, but you kind of like just running in your spot. And we talked about this and I had this moment of what I call a moment of insight. When I was driving south earlier this summer for my birthday, I hired a car to drive from Eastbourne Tasting to Brighton.
And at one point I took a side road specifically to go by what looked out on the map as a small street by the beach. And I remember getting stuck in that small street. And it was there was no beach on either side. It was just houses. And at one point the houses on the left stopped and you literally had the beach on your left and the pebbles scattered on the road. And I looked at it and I you know, I was so glad to have seen that it looked beautiful.
It was a sunset and everything, like everything that you need in that landscape was there. But I didn't because my sat nav was set to go to Brighton. So I went to Brighton. And then after I got there, it's like. What stopped me from actually sparking like everyone else on that beach by the pebbles and just stick it in and enjoy it, there is nothing I had nothing waiting for me, inviting I was not rushing to get anything.
It was just the fact that I was set to that point B and I was heading there. And all I can think of is getting to that point. And I was talking to my therapist about this and I said to her, actually, this is the metaphor of my life. This is how I've been living my life from point A to B without stopping on these moments in between to think and appreciate and take it in. So when I got my car recently on a lease, I called it Pebble.
For that reason, I started driving at glancingly.
I love that. So you were just taking random drives and soaking up, I don't know, the glory of an autumnal tree trying to do that. Yes, I think so many people will relate to that, myself included. I think we can all be so conditioned to drive a long life as if it's a motorway and there are certain pit stops represented by school exams or promotions. And we forget, as you say, to celebrate those beautiful moments of the mundane.
So the real question is, what are you going to celebrate next? Because I know you've got a new job. So how did you celebrate that?
I've got quite a few to celebrate in September. So I had the offer. That was a good thing. I celebrated passing my life in the UK test. I can take that box and I stopped to celebrate my journey with my former employer. Now, as of today, please call and celebrate the people they've met celebrated the moments that we've had together, brought along a message that people hated me for reading, just getting. They did not. But I'd like to stop and think about these small moments from things that goes by without thinking.
One of them, for instance, I mentioned in my interview process, for instance, I remember the hiring manager at that point. She told me, look, I said, I don't think we are the right fit for you. And my response to her at that point was, I beg to differ. And then I made my case. And then surprisingly, she got convinced and she invited me actually to a face to face interview. But then thinking about it, she did not say you are not the right fit for us.
She said, we are not the right fit for you. And I think even those small changes in our narrative and the way that we present ourselves makes a huge difference. And it stayed with me two years after that. This is one of the things that she said, and it made me feel empowered that actually, no, I am the right fit for you and you are the right fit for me. And I made my case, so I took the time and think about these moments and mentioned these to people and thanking them for those opportunities that they gave me and looking forward, start a new job on Monday.
Bussel TEEB, you are an inspiration to us all the right fit for this podcast beyond doubt. And you said earlier that you wore your status as a refugee, as a badge of honour.
And I have to say it has been my honor to hear your story today. Thank you so, so much. Thank you so much for having me.
If you enjoyed this episode of How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, I would so appreciate it if you could rate review and subscribe. Apparently it helps other people know that we exist.