On a coronavirus ward in an east London hospital, award-winning film-maker Hassan Akkad, a refugee from Syria, is working as a cleaner, joining the fight against the pandemic in his adopted home.
“I’m so glad to be helping,” Akkad said in an interview on Zoom.
The 32-year old refugee has lived in London for four years. His footage of the journey he made surviving a sinking dinghy from Turkey into Europe and on to the UK, was part of a documentary series which in 2017 won BAFTA and International Emmy awards.
With the outbreak of the disease, he saw a way to thank the community that had welcomed him and become “like home” by becoming a hospital cleaner at Whipps Cross Hospital.
Akkad has been working there for four weeks, five days a week, and says it is one of his toughest challenges yet.
“It’s a stressful job. It’s physically and mentally demanding,” he said, adding that disinfecting every inch of the ward while wearing personal protective equipment leaves him sweating and out of breath.
And there was an emotional toll.
“It’s really difficult to see patients suffering, especially that they cannot be visited by their loved ones because of the rules. You see them on their beds, talking to their loved ones, crying. It’s hard to witness that,” he added.
But he says the experience will be worth it.
It will enable him to be able to tell the story of this pandemic, as well as to promote causes he is passionate about, such as better treatment for immigrants and refugees, and higher pay for workers at the “bottom of the pyramid.”
Sounding like a true native of his new country, Akkad bemoaned the lack of funding for the state-run National Health Service, and sang the praises of the multiculturalism of its nurses, cleaners and porters and their ability to work together.
His colleagues on the coronavirus ward are from Nigeria, Jamaica, Ghana, Syria, Spain, Thailand and Poland, he said.
When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke of his recent treatment in another London hospital for coronavirus, he thanked two nurses from Portugal and New Zealand for their care.
Noting that not all migrants and refugees have such a positive experience as he had when he first came to the UK, Akkad said he hoped that the coronavirus pandemic would bring a sense of unity and put an end to the hostility sometimes felt by new arrivals.
“Now that we see immigrants and refugees on the front line, I hope that will urge people again internationally to have a discussion about the value of immigrants and refugees to their host communities,” he said.