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Dublin: 19 °C Tuesday 17 July, 2018
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'People aren't fleeing for no reason, they are forced to leave - forced by killing'

A Syrian refugee explains why he left his home country to start a new life in Ireland.

Civilians run for cover from explosions in the city of Afrin in northern Syria today, after Turkish forces and their rebel allies took control of the Kurdish-majority city.
Civilians run for cover from explosions in the city of Afrin in northern Syria today, after Turkish forces and their rebel allies took control of the Kurdish-majority city.
Image: AFP/Getty Images

IT’S DIFFICULT TO make the decision to leave your country, to leave everything. You have a life, you have property, a house, friends, relatives, sisters, brothers, parents, kids. It’s not really a decision at all.

In 2013, people in my town of Khirbet Ghazaleh in Syria were forced to leave. After that, my family decided to go to Jordan. We ended up at the Zaatari refugee camp. Life is very, very difficult there.

There are a lot of problems. It’s a very crowded place, it’s not really suitable for human life. You have no privacy at all, even inside your home, inside your bed. There is sewage everywhere.

My young son got sick – that was very bad. It was the first time I saw him like that. Luckily, he recovered.

We understand, from the other side of the story, that Jordan was already struggling before the current crisis. A lot of other refugees are coming from different countries.

It was forbidden to leave the camp but we escaped. In October 2013, I left Jordan. I went to Turkey. I stayed there for a little while but wasn’t able to get my family to join me so I left for Greece.

People drowning 

We kept hearing about people drowning as they tried to get to Greece, including on the same night we left. You know that you could drown and you still make that decision to go. I can’t even say it’s a decision because you don’t really have a choice.

You are pushed, pushed, pushed, and you just try to survive. You have to survive. I had big responsibilities – my parents, my children and my wife were counting on me.

After a couple of weeks in Greece I was told I was going to Ireland. I didn’t choose to come here, my smuggler told me this is where he was sending me.

When I arrived in Ireland I was told I might be deported. They sent me to a reception centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Balseskin, Dublin. I stayed there for a few months until I got my refugee status.

I was struggling with life for many reasons. Everything was new to me: language, life, culture. I started to teach myself English on YouTube, then went to classes at Balseskin. While I was trying to settle in, it was also very difficult to be apart from my family.

My wife and children came to Ireland in December 2014, about 10 months after I arrived. My parents came a year later, in December 2015. Two of my sisters and their families went to England through a resettlement programme, but I can’t get a visa to visit them.

Integration

A lot of charities in Ireland help refugees and asylum seekers. Crosscare, in particular, supported me. A social worker helped me fill out forms.

Irish people are lovely, but they can be reluctant to speak to you. I’ve had one or two experiences of people saying racist things to me but that’s OK. Once an older man asked me if I was in ISIS. I told him I wasn’t and he said I should go back to where I was from. Most people aren’t like this though and I’ve started to make friends.

Migrants and refugees often tend to stay in their own groups when they move to a new country, that’s natural. Many people are afraid when they arrive here and it’s important to help them integrate. If that doesn’t happen, it’s not good for anyone.

To help people in reception centres integrate better, there could be programmes to teach them about Irish culture and history.

In general, people live inside their own bubble. People who move to a new country, especially refugees and asylum seekers, are forced to leave this bubble. This can make them feel very anxious, very traumatised – like a fish leaving water.

Different people have a role to play in promoting integration, including the government and the media. There are supports for when refugees and asylum seekers arrive here, but there could be more.

When I arrived in Balseskin, for example, I didn’t realise that English classes took place at the centre as the sign advertising them was in English. It’s an English-speaking country so we should expect everything to be written in English, but there should be some extra support for people who are still struggling with the language.

People can also struggle with things like medical visits if an interpreter isn’t present. If people aren’t able to attend classes, maybe video tutorials could be made available to help them learn English and other relevant skills.

Going back to college

I was a maths teacher in Syria. I wanted to continue my career as a teacher but, due to the language barrier and my qualification not being recognised here, I wasn’t able to. I had to change my career and moved into IT. I did a higher diploma in computing and mobile technology and recently completed a master’s in data analytics.

I already had a degree and a different career, but trying to get a higher diploma with very little English was difficult. At first I was sitting in the lectures and I couldn’t really understand everything, that was very hard. Lecturers spoke very quickly. It took me a long time but I started to understand.

In general, I got good marks. I thought I might be able to get a job once I passed the course but that wasn’t the case so I started the master’s. I’m still looking for a job, but I have a lot of ideas. I am already developing an app and have written a book – it’s a children’s book about a Syrian child’s life before the war.

I understand that some people are upset about refugees and migrants coming to Ireland. They think we will take their place in accommodation or in a job. Culturally in Syria we don’t really think like that.

A lot of refugees came to our country before the war – people from Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt. Each one will come and create their own opportunity.

People aren’t fleeing their home countries for no reason, it isn’t a decision. We are forced to leave, forced by killing. We don’t have choices. We are just trying to survive.

It reminds me of people fleeing Ireland during the Famine in the 1840s. They were forced to go to a different country looking for new opportunities for them, for their children. They went to Canada, America, England, Australia, Europe.

Hopes for Syria

I hope that the conflict in Syria will be resolved but I’m not sure how. About 500,000 people have been killed, including many of my cousins, and millions more displaced. Even if Bashar al-Assad is gone the conflict will keep going. There is violence from all sides – the regime, ISIS, different groups, different countries.

I never used to be asked if I was Muslim, but a lot of people ask me that question now. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and some people categorise them all as terrorists. Many non-Muslims have carried out attacks too. Muslims themselves are struggling with extremist people – most of ISIS’s victims are Muslim.

A lot of Syrian people who left have no place to go back to.

I’m not the type of person who likes to move around a lot. I had a lot of plans in Syria. In five years I did a lot: I bought my flat, I had a farm. I was expecting that I’d have a stable income the following year. But suddenly everything was gone.

I don’t think I could go back. Even if the war ended – something I sadly don’t think will happen any time soon – it would take a long time to make the country safe again. Ireland is my home now.

I didn’t want to talk about my story but I’m sharing it because a lot of people want to understand what’s going on, why Syrian people are coming to places like Ireland. I’m here today not just to present myself or talk about my personal story. I’m one story of thousands and thousands, probably millions.

Supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund and the Tony Ryan Trust

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