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Why a Syrian refugee-turned-filmmaker is volunteering as a hospital cleaner

Syrian refugee filmmaker joins COVID fight
Syrian refugee filmmaker joins COVID fight 03:17

London — Hassan Akkad, a Syrian English teacher and photographer, filmed his own brush with death. He was recording when a dinghy carrying him and other war refugees across the Mediterranean started to sink.

"We got picked up by the Turkish coastguards and we got sent back," he tells CBS News. Back in 2011, peaceful demonstrators were calling for political reform in Syria, and Akkad was one of them.

"Imagine shouting, 'freedom'… yelling, 'rights and end of dictatorship' — you can't do that in Syria, but we did it, it was so liberating." 

Liberating, and lethal. Government forces attacked the crowds and Akkad was arrested, and tortured.

"They beat me with Iron poles. I always thought I have a lovely face, so I was trying to protect my face, but they ended up smashing my arms," he recalls of the ordeal.

Akkad, then 24, was eventually released, but he knew his only choice was to join the human tide of weary refugees making a break for safety in Europe.

"I picked Britain because I could speak English," he says. He got a forged passport and as soon as he landed at London's Heathrow Airport, he says he went "straight to the border control and I claimed asylum, and that was the end of a very long and arduous journey."

It was a journey that led first to a career in Britain as an award-winning filmmaker. But most recently, it has led to a job as a volunteer cleaner at one of the many British hospitals battling the coronavirus pandemic.

So what was behind Akkad's recent, dramatic career change?

"I've lived through crises before," he says. "When it kicked off, I had to do something. I couldn't just sit at home."

But Akkad doesn't feel like he's paying back a debt.

"Refugee status is my right as a human being, and I don't have to do anything in return. However, I have to pay it forward to the people of this country."

A country where he says he was made to feel welcome, and where he found "so many shoulders" to lean on when he was struggling.

"I didn't hesitate," he says.

Now Akkad has become something of a local hero, and he's using the publicity to raise money for a charity close to his heart — "Choose Love," an organization that helps refugees around the world — and for his local hospital.

"I don't consider myself a hero," he says. "After all, I am doing this temporarily, until this pandemic is over. The heroes are the people who do this full-time, the people who clean, the porters, the medical staff, the nurses, they are the actual heroes."

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