Hassan Akkad, award-winning documentary filmmaker, activist and author of Hope Not Fear: Finding My Way from Refugee to Filmmaker to NHS Hospital Cleaner, talks to Happiful’s podcast about his love of storytelling and speaking about his own mental health to support others
In 2020, Hassan Akkad - a Syrian documentary filmmaker - took up a role at Whipps Cross Hospital in London. The hospital was stretched to capacity as Covid began to take hold across the nation and they urgently needed cleaners to keep the wards clean and safe.
Hassan joined the team at Whipps Cross and soon discovered the immense kindness of those who were keeping the hospital running, and providing patients with much-needed kindness as they became isolated from their families and the world outside the hospital doors. Many of his colleagues were migrants, and were travelling for hours to work their shifts - dedicated and putting themselves at risk of exposure each and every day.
When the government announced that their bereavement scheme would exclude hospital cleaners and porters, Hassan knew that he wanted to take action and challenge this injustice - and he did. As he writes in his book Hope Not Fear: Finding My Way from Refugee to Filmmaker to NHS Hospital Cleaner, "My first instinct is to question what I can do to try and make things better."
So, Hassan picked up a camera and documented his friends work, he spoke to news outlets and he used his platform to show the gravity and the deep inequality at play. And, along with others, he saw to it that the scheme was changed.
Hassan has used his storytelling skills for many years to show those who may not be aware (or are simply refusing to look) what is happening in the world around him. He documented his attempts to cross Europe as a refugee, the impact of being in exile, and he's worked with Choose Love, a refugee advocacy organisation.
On Happiful's podcast I am. I have Hassan shares why storytelling is so close to his heart, what drives his need to share the stories of others and why he chooses hope, not fear.
Read the full interview with Hassan in Happiful’s next issue.
Sharing my story
Growing up, I was surrounded by stories. My cousins were really great storytellers and I was always fascinated by the details they shared.
I loved teaching because it involved telling stories. I taught English language and social studies when I lived in Syria and I used to rely heavily on using a story as a medium, as part of my lesson plan.
I used to watch films all the time, I still do. That helped me know how to structure a story. Because I watch films, do my photography and I was teaching, I had different elements of practice that enabled me to become good at storytelling.
I had shared my story before on different platforms. It always revolved around the fact that I am from Damascus, events happened that made me have to leave my country and I came to the UK on a boat, and I filmed it and won a BAFTA. But when I got the book deal and had to write the story, that was different. The process of writing means that you have to invoke as many details as possible because you want your readers to walk in your footsteps.
It was very intense because there are elements of my story which are slightly dark or bleak, so bringing back those memories was really hard. I was working with another writer and because I’m very visual, I started going back through all the photos I’ve taken in my life because a photo will help me remember an event.
We spent around 12 weeks writing the first draft and there were times when we were both laughing or crying but it was also very cathartic. There are so many events that my psyche has protected me from and put in a box, but then when I opened these boxes they carried so many emotions. When I was done, I did feel better.
Telling stories other than my own is driven by responsibility, by me checking my privilege and having a platform to share with others. I think it's also driven by survivor's guilt. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD and I think the feeling of guilt is a symptom of my diagnosis.
I try as best as I can to platform other stories and bigger crises.
There's a stigma around mental health in Syria. I left Syria when I was 24 and, at that point, I had no education around mental health.
When the Syrian crisis started, it affected everyone's mental health. People have embarked upon physical journeys to get out of Syria but, once they got to their destinations, it felt like everyone was embarking upon journeys to understand what was happening in their minds.
Hope not fear
A small amount of fear isn't always bad, because it drives us to do something. My urge to work in that hospital (during the pandemic) was driven by my fear of the high level of uncertainty back then. My new home was under threat and I've already lost one home.
The reason I say I'm focusing on hope is because hope is important, especially if it's linked with action. Hope on its own is passive. I can't stay at home and hope the world will become better. If I link that hope with an action, it will do something, it will help in a way. It will make the world a slightly better place to live for everyone.
Listen to Hassan’s episode of I am. I have.
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.
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