Dema Aktaa: “I was an active girl”

Dema participated in a running contest where I got second place, and then I went to another city where I dreamed of first place and managed to achieve second place again. Then the war started.

It was the middle of the night in August 2012 when I heard the sound of a loud explosion coming from near my 12-year-old sister’s room.

I ran to check on her and she was shaken, but thankfully fine.

As I made my way to the balcony to see what caused the disturbance, I took one step and the next thing I knew, I heard another huge bang, then was suddenly hit by a strong blast and knocked to the ground.

My home in Syria had been hit by a bomb and my very first thought was: ‘I hope my family is alright.’

That was until I looked down and saw that my left leg had been blown clean off and I went into a state of shock. I didn’t cry or scream, I just held what was left of my leg and was driven by my cousin to the closest hospital over an hour and a half away. Remarkably, the rest of my family were OK.

I was 18 years old at the time with my whole life ahead of me, but I’d never be the same again. Now – almost 10 years later – I’m living in the UK as a refugee with newfound hope for the future. I started my new life.

I grew up in a small village called Salqin in Syria and had a fairly normal childhood. I’m one of six children and I have fond memories of laughing with my friends at school and going on holidays with my family.

One of my favourite things to do was compete in school running competitions, but the Syrian conflict just over 10 years ago changed everything.

After the explosion, I had emergency surgery. I stayed in the local hospital for a week and during that time, I was given a pair of crutches to use.

My recovery was slow and painful
My recovery was slow and painful

Unfortunately, because I didn’t have the time to properly heal and recover, I fell flat on my face the first time I tried to use them and had to have another operation, which was painful but more so frustrating.

After a week, I had to leave the overcrowded hospital because of the escalating conflict and so we moved in with my grandmother while we figured out what to do.

My recovery was slow and painful and my family were all really supportive but I didn’t like the way they treated me differently. I was still the same person from before and I had new special needs but I hated people pitying or feeling sorry for me.

After about a month in my grandma’s home, my family fled to Lebanon by car because two of my brothers were living and working there at the time. I still didn’t have a prosthetic leg so I had to get around with my crutches, which was difficult in a new environment.

Moving to the UK has been a fresh start that I’m glad I was given the chance to have
Moving to the UK has been a fresh start that I’m glad I was given the chance to have

I found myself withdrawing a bit and didn’t really leave the house we shared with my brother in the Lebanese city of Jbeil. So I mostly stayed in and helped with cleaning, cooking and supporting around the home. My family received financial support through a special UN programme, which helps Syrian refugees.

We stayed in Lebanon for about five years but in 2015 I actually went back to Syria to get a prosthetic leg and try to complete my studies, while living with an aunt in Damascus.

Again, getting used to a new walking aid felt frustrating. Ultimately though, I was happy that I could now wear something as I walked down the street and people wouldn’t stare at me for not having a leg. I liked being able to blend in if I wanted to.

After a few months, I rejoined the rest of my family in Lebanon and then not long after, the UN programme – supported by various UK charities – offered to resettle my family in the UK. It was a daunting prospect because I couldn’t speak a word of English at the time but my family agreed that it would be the best option for us.

We had to complete some formalities but everything was eventually approved and at the age of 24 in 2017, my mother, older brother, younger sister and I packed up all of our things again and flew from Lebanon to Turkey and then onto Heathrow airport. The rest of my siblings are living in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria with their respective families.

After going through what we did, I must admit that I found it hard to open up and trust the people and charities supporting us. We were in a new place surrounded by strangers and I’d been through a traumatic ordeal.

We were driven to Flitwick in Bedfordshire – where we’ve been living ever since – and everyone has been so unbelievably welcoming. Personally speaking, people have accepted me for who I am and have not just seen me as an amputee or a refugee.

Moving to the UK has been the best choice we’ve ever made for our family. Even though it’s been a challenge learning English – which was initially a barrier to making friends and meeting new people – it’s been a fresh start that I’m glad I was given the chance to have.

I worked as a volunteer in a school, which led to me being offered a job as a supervisor at lunchtime. Even though I had to stop this job in October last year because I needed an operation on my stump, I hope to go back soon because I love working with children. I’m also now studying interior design at college.

Running with the blade feels almost like flying
Running with the blade feels almost like flying 

After all of the support I received in the UK, I wanted to do something to try to give back so I organised to walk one mile for Choose Love, which is an NGO that supports refugees. I managed to raise £1,000 and I was so happy and proud of myself.

That’s when my friend Ben suggested I also start fundraising to try to buy a running blade so that I could get back into exercise again. Disability charity ‘myAFK’ saw my fundraising page and got in touch to offer to help part-fund for my running prosthesis, as well as apply to a number of different charities on my behalf. I can not thank everyone who has supported me enough because it really means a lot.

Remarkably, we raised £13,500 to afford to buy a running blade and I received it at the start of this year. I was so touched by it all.

The first time I put it on, I felt strange but excited to start properly running again and it took a lot of getting used to it. Now, running with the blade feels almost like flying!