Sometimes we come across a book that we know is going to be difficult reading, but we do it anyway. Reading about a refugee – who is going to be fleeing from some kind of grim reality – who then becomes a hospital cleaner in the pandemic – cue additional grimness – was always going to be a hard ask but I thought it was going to be an important read (and I was right) and I was prepared to put it aside if I couldn’t cope. Having finished reading “Roots” before I started this one, I was pretty sure I would cope, and I did.

Hassan Akkad – “Hope not Fear: Finding my way from Refugee to Filmmaker, NHS Hospital Cleaner and Activist”

(24 August 2021, NetGalley)

I can see danger on the horizon. Indeed, sometimes it feels as if it is following me around. The general reaction to what was happening in Wuhan reminded me so much of that other time, before, in my home country of Syria, when things were changing quickly, falling apart, but people clung to their everyday routines like some sort of security blanket.

We open the book with Akkad standing nervously in a hospital reception, remembering the brutality dealt out to him in a hospital in his homeland of Syria but desperate to help his adopted country during the pandemic. Then we go back to a conventional journey through his life in Syria from the early days with his family, when he was by his own admission a bit thuggish and not understanding of people’s differences, through his awakening to activism during the protests around the time of the Arab Spring (brutally suppressed in Syria), his almost inevitable capture and then torture and despair, then his escape, the awful journey to the UK and his settlement here.

I hadn’t realised that Akkad was famous for having gone viral, first for the film footage he took while escaping as a refugee and then for a rant he filmed about the treatment of mainly migrant workers in the NHS who were holding the hospital system together. That just shows that this is a valid book in its own right and capable of capturing readers who are interested in the story without that hyped aspect. It’s certainly both remarkable and heart-warming.

Akkad makes sure he shares the stories of the people who gave him small kindnesses, offered a smile or a helping hand, during his escape and his time in the UK. While the careless actions of human traffickers put so many at risk for a profit and the rhetoric of politics and the media spoke of swarms of migrants and benefits scroungers, he found decent people both on the journey (the pharmacist who gave him free medicines springs to mind) and once in the UK. Reading of his friendships was also moving: he decided he wanted to go to the UK because he spoke good English and could be of more use here, but a close friend stayed in Germany.

Akkad is very open on mental health and the issues that refugees face in this regard. Diagnosed with PTSD from both his treatment in Syria and his journey, he considers most will have the same problems. He also points out that it can be retraumatising to be invited to tell his story again and again for filmmakers and others – however he does face up to that to raise awareness and to help others. He has a strong survivor’s guilt, especially because Syrians were fast-tracked through asylum processes it takes others years to undergo. But throughout he is humane and understanding, sharing to educate and wanting to give back to UK society, not because he owes the country (he is firm on how asylum is a worldwide human right, not something to be cringingly grateful for) but because his impulse is always to help. While heavily criticising the government response, he’s clear that individuals are generally good and do seek to help.

You only had to look at the mutual aid groups that mushroomed around Britain, people printing 3D visors in their garages, sewing scrums for local hospitals, sending out food parcels.

In the end, this is indeed a book of hope. I’m so glad I read it.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Hope not Fear” was published on 2 September 2021.