Filmmaker, author, and activist Hassan Akkad is a natural storyteller. He began his long and varied career as an English and social studies teacher in his home town of Damascus, Syria, and now, 15 years later, and after many seismic life changes, his students still contact him to share what they remember of their time in his class, and how they continue to follow his work today.
This brings Hassan great joy and he explains how, as a teacher, he relied heavily on the use of stories to engage and captivate students. Storytelling was already a life-long passion of his and one that began in his infancy as he listened to the tales passed down through generations, told to him by his parents and cousins.
As Hassan grew up, he started to consume and develop stories outside of his family circle. “I used to watch movies all the time, I still do, so that helped me know how to structure a narrative. Because I watched films, loved photography, and I was teaching, I had experience of all the elements that allowed me to create my own stories,” he shares.
As Hassan’s love of film as a medium blossomed, his passion for exploring the world and political landscape around him grew stronger. His urge to document and show others what was happening became so strong that when he was forced to flee his hometown of Damascus and seek asylum in the UK, via a treacherous ocean crossing, it was second nature to film his journey.
This pivotal chapter of Hassan’s life, the circumstances that led to his departure from Damascus, and his life after in the UK, have been chronicled in his book Hope Not Fear. Hassan shares his many journeys, the people he encountered, and his subsequent work within the NHS, and activism during the worldwide pandemic.
Here, he explains why claiming ownership of his own story was crucial for him, how he’s developed a greater understanding of mental illness, and how vital connections are for supporting our wellbeing.
In Hope Not Fear you’ve told your story in your own words. What was the significance of this for you?
I have experienced trauma, different levels of trauma. I feel like I should have full control and agency about how I talk about it, and what I choose to share. I was previously in a situation where I felt like my trauma was exploited for other people’s benefit, and that made me feel a lot worse.
As a person, I am way more than the traumatic experiences I’ve been through in my life. I’ve felt very empowered writing and publishing my book because I’ve had authorship and agency over what I’ve written and how much I’ve shared.
The other thing is that stories from the Syria region are usually told in the third person. There would be a writer, filmmaker, or reporter talking about us. With this book, I’m hoping to inspire people from the Arab world and Syria to have control over how their stories are told. I think that’s really important.
You also shine a light on others you’ve met, to advocate for them. What motivates you to do this?
I am driven by supporting other people because I have been supported by so many others along the way, especially in the past 10 to 15 years. I wouldn’t have been here physically if I wasn’t helped by the people I’ve met, who changed my life. Their kindness and generosity helped me to survive and carry on.
I now feel that I have a big responsibility, I have a platform. So that urge to tell others’ stories is also driven by my responsibility, by me checking my privilege, and also by my survivor’s guilt. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and a symptom of this diagnosis is feeling guilt. So when the focus is on me alone, it’s very difficult for me to manage and I want to share how so many other people have been impacted and involved. I want to shed light on their experiences, too.
You discuss mental ill-health and your understanding of it in Hope Not Fear. Can you tell us about the importance of sharing your own experience?
I left Syria when I was 24 years old and imagine, up until then I had no education around mental health! There wasn’t a conversation around therapy, psychologists – none of that. There was a stigma around mental ill-health in Syria, and there still is. The way we talked about the subject was awful.
I learnt about PTSD because a colleague of mine in the UK sent me a document about it. Just reading about the symptoms was really emotional. I remember crying so hard, tears were dropping on my phone as I was reading it and I realised it’s a thing, and it can be cured.
The reason I was so open about my own mental ill-health in my book was because I want other people to read it, especially other Syrians and people who have been through similar experiences, to know that there is light at the end of it all.
“When I think about what gives me support, it’s having friends, a community, a purpose”
Alongside your work with mental health professionals, what supports your wellbeing on a daily basis?
When I think about what gives me support, it’s having friends, a community, a purpose. Being in nature is also therapy for me.
Community is so very important, especially if you live in exile and if you don’t speak the language. A lot of people come here and they’re pressured to integrate, but how do you do that when you have baggage and you’ve been through so much? Before you integrate, you need to feel supported, whether that’s access to therapy or time spent with friends.
I want to highlight the importance of connection. It’s the best thing ever for me. My friends have played a really big role in helping me understand mental illness, too. I didn’t even know what depression meant; there were so many things I had no awareness of, and without my friends, I still wouldn’t know. If any of them are reading, I’d like to say thank you for looking out for me.
You mentioned that being in nature is therapeutic for you?
Yes! Swimming, wild swimming specifically, really helps my anxiety. When I’m underwater, I don’t think about anything else. It helps me to switch off. I feel like the water works as a shield against my thoughts, and as long as I’m in the water I am the happiest person alive. I find it magical.
‘Hope Not Fear: Finding My Way from Refugee to Filmmaker to NHS Hospital Cleaner’ by Hassan Akkad, published by bluebird books for life, is out now.
Listen to the full interview with Hassan on Happiful’s podcast ‘I am. I have’.
To connect with a counsellor who can support your wellbeing, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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