By Dani Garavelli

AS the plane drew closer to the UK, Ayman Hirh's mind was in turmoil. Hours earlier, on the runway at Damascus Airport, he had been willing it to take off, terrified that something - a mechanical fault, the weather, the Syrian army - would see him trapped in a country where his life was in peril.

But now, as it headed to Heathrow, he was willing it not to land. The 10 days he had spent in hiding - and borrowing $2,000 to bribe government officials to renew his passport - had been so fraught, he'd had little time to think about anything else. Now he was gripped with fear for the wife and baby twins he'd left behind and for the uncertain future ahead.

At immigration, a sign reading: "Stand here if you want to claim asylum" provided some reassurance, but as he braced himself for interrogation, the panic returned. "I kept asking myself: 'What if they send me back now?' And then I think: 'OK, that is my life end'."

Ayman, 47, was one of the first activists to take to the streets during the uprising in 2011. A highly-educated man - he speaks English, Russian and French as well as Arabic - he saw the dangerous job of filming the protests and broadcasting them to the world as a commitment to the democracy he wanted for his country.

It wasn't long, though, before the police and army started firing on the crowds. Many of Ayman's friends were shot - some in front of him - while others were tortured or disappeared. Then, in December, a fellow activist published details of a private meeting with President Bashar Al-Assad on Facebook. Ayman knew a crackdown would follow and that he no choice but to flee. As officers ransacked his apartment, taking all his money and his wife's gold, he lay low elsewhere in the city until it was possible for him to escape.

Ayman arrived at Heathrow on January 1, 2012. Within days, he was told to move to Glasgow, and he set about the daunting task of reuniting his family and rebuilding his life in what Google informed him was "the roughest city in the UK".

Today, he and his wife Iman are living in Edinburgh with their five-year-old sons Bishir and Bassil. They serve thick Syrian-style coffee and Ma'amoul - cookies stuffed with dates, home-baked for Eid - as they tell me about the challenges of the last few years.

Fiercely proud of the efforts they have made to integrate, they talk of how their sons - who are learning to swim - want to win gold medals for Scotland. "One day, when we were walking on the High Street, they saw a man selling Scottish flags and they ran up and they kissed them and they put them on their heads and everyone was laughing," Ayman says. "They always say to me: 'Dad, we want to buy kilts and wear them to school to surprise everyone'."

Ayman volunteers two days a week for the British Red Cross in Glasgow and spends another three studying legal services at Edinburgh College. Iman is taking ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes and hopes to get a job as a care assistant. They have had a lot of support - from the local authorities, the Scottish Refugee Council and the British Red Cross. Yet, despite the couple's ebullience and refusal to complain, settling in Scotland has not always been easy and their relief at their own escape is tempered by thoughts of their mothers still trapped in Damascus as mortars and air strikes rain destruction.

In the next few months, hundreds more Syrians will arrive in Scotland as the Westminster government starts to make good on its commitment to take 20,000 from camps in the Middle East. These refugees, brought in as part of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, will be those most severely traumatised by the war which has destroyed large swathes of the country and seen 12 million people forced from their homes. Meanwhile, asylum-seekers will continue to arrive by other routes, having travelled on overcrowded boats from Turkey, walked across a continent, boarded a moving lorry at Calais.

In the wake of David Cameron's announcement, a Scottish task force was set up to look at how the country could aid these new arrivals who will be spread across 18 local authorities. Like the Hirhs, they will come with nothing - having left every vestige of their old lives behind - and, like the Hirhs, they will need access to housing, GPs, schools, ESOL classes and, eventually, employment. They too will be caught between their longing for the past and their hopes for the future.

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In the flat in Balgreen, Ayman is recalling his own first few disorientating months in a YMCA hostel in Glasgow. A small man of enormous spirit, whose dramatic voice and gestures fill the room, he remains cheerful, even when he is talking about experiences that would fell the less-resilient, such as the day, a few months ago, he was shown photographs of the family's apartment in the opposition-held suburb of Joubar, reduced to rubble by government air strikes. Zooming in, he could see his beloved books strewn across the ground.

Ayman spent those early months trying to sort out documents for his wife and the boys (and constantly checking up on what was happening 'back home' through Facebook). When they finally made it to Scotland, the family was handed the keys to a flat in a high-rise in Kennishead in the south side of the city. "In the hostel, I was always on my laptop communicating with friends, so, in my head, I was where they were," Ayman says, "but when Iman came, I said: 'look, we are living here now. We have to make friends with Scottish people not Arab people. If you want to develop your English, if you want to integrate, you have to do that, because this country we have come to, it could be for life'. Iman saw the place and said: 'Yes, I can live here'. We were happy to be together."

Such is their gratitude to Scotland, they downplay the hardships they have endured, but you catch a glimpse of it now and again in the vivid snapshots Ayman conjures: of his sons, who barely recognised him, shying away from him when he met them again in London; and of finding all three of them asleep, their heads resting on a housing office desk, after their long journey north. Life in Kennishead was far from perfect, but the only inkling I get of trouble on the estate is when Ayman recalls his boys pressing their faces up against the flat window to catch a glimpse of the police cars and admits that, at first, Iman didn't want to go out alone. (Newspaper reports from the previous year talk of public drunkenness, house-breaking and the wielding of machetes).

Despite Iman's concerns over her hijab, they did not experience much racism, but there have been other hurdles. In Syria, before the war, the Hirhs lived a very comfortable life. Ayman - who has eight brothers and two sisters - studied in Moscow and London before returning to help run his family's marble and granite business, now destroyed. But it has been difficult for him to find work in Scotland; indeed the only time I see a flicker of exasperation is when he explains how a job at Edinburgh Airport ended because he was unable to obtain disclosure documents from Syria.

They have made plenty of friends and they revel in cultural exchanges, taking traditional dishes such as tabbouleh to social events at the college and elsewhere. But recently Bassil has been suffering from recurrent chest infections caused by damp in the private flat which they are preparing to leave.

As we talk, they are packed up and in a state of limbo, with no idea where they'll be living by the weekend. All this they have to bear while in mourning for a life they can never reclaim. When I ask Ayman how he keeps upbeat, he says: "I'm a hard man. I have many pressures on my head, many worries, but I am away now. I can do nothing, except look after my small family."

But he hasn't let go of Syria. How could he? Often, his conversation drifts back to the couple's extended family: to the three brothers of Iman who have disappeared, to his siblings now scattered across the Middle East and Europe, and to the grandmothers his sons will probably never meet.

On the other side of the country, Mohammad and Joury* are similarly torn. The couple are not refugees, they are academics doing PhDs at Glasgow University after it agreed to waive their fees and CARA (the Council for At-Risk Academics) agreed to pay some of their living expenses. They are living in student accommodation in a leafy part of the West End.

Working as lecturers at a Syrian University, the couple were caught in the middle of the conflict, eyed with suspicion both by the government, which wanted academics to keep promoting the illusion of normality, and by the opposition, which saw them as allied to the state. "It was horrible. When we had to stop at checkpoints we wouldn't know if they were related to the government or the opposition," Joury says. "They would ask: 'Where do you come from? What do you do?' and we would always say we were primary school teachers," They couple had received offers to do their PhDs at several UK universities, but they lacked the finances to take them up and, in any case, the Syrian university refused to accept their resignations.

Pregnant with Ahmed, Joury was given permission to go to Lebanon for 10 days for medical treatment and didn't return. Mohammad crossed the border illegally into Jordan where he spent several weeks in a camp before escaping and meeting Joury who had travelled there. The couple tried unsuccessfully to find work, so they moved to Kuwait where Ahmed was born. Feeling settled at last, they were in the process of legalising their status, when they were suddenly told to pack up and get out. That evening, they stood at Kuwait International Airport trying to decide where to go. They chose Istanbul, but the flight left them virtually penniless so they travelled by bus to small town near the Syrian border where it was cheaper to live and started re-contacting all the British universities that had previously given them offers. Glasgow University agreed to waive their fees and, on Boxing Day last year, they arrived in the city.

Mohammad and Joury enjoy their studies and spend a lot of time in the Botanic Gardens. But they too have left loved ones behind and two-year-old Ahmed - a mop of hair in blue dungarees - is so shy he will barely look at other people. He spends most of the interview with his face in his father's shoulder or his eyes squeezed shut. Joury believes this wariness is related to the uncertainty of his early life.

The couple have not sought refugee status; they believe that one day they will return to Syria. "That's what we have always wanted: to study here and then go back and raise Ahmed in our own country," Mohammad says.

But the Hirhs have more or less surrendered all hope of seeing their homeland again. In a year's time - as soon as they are allowed - they will apply for indefinite leave to remain. "Can we ever go back? This is the most difficult question we ask ourself every night," Ayman says. "But I am a political man - I look at what is happening and I see things get worse and worse. Even if the war ends, what would we go back to? We have nothing there now."

It's four days since the family left their flat in Balgreen; they have been given council accommodation on the north of the city, their children have transferred to another school and the family is, as always, making the best of it. The sun is shining, there's a park nearby and Bishir and Bassil are playing on a roundabout in the shadow of blocks of flats.

"The boys ask about Syria. They want to know if my mother, who is 83, walks like this," says Ayman, mimicking an old woman bent over a stick. “But they don't believe they will go to Syria one day, no. When you say Syria they are scared. All our working and thinking now is to get good jobs and make good lives in Scotland."

* Mohammad, Joury and Ahmed's names have been changed to protect their identity.