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'Be brave, not ashamed': What the Syrian experience in Ireland can tell us about Afghan resettlement

Ireland has so far committed to accepting 200 Afghan refugees.

Chahira Bourhan has been in Ireland since December 2019.
Chahira Bourhan has been in Ireland since December 2019.

“BE BRAVE AND do not be ashamed” is the message Chahira Bourhan would like to deliver to Afghan refugees seeking to make Ireland their home over the coming months and years.

The mother-of-two from Zabadani in Syria has called Ireland her home for almost two years. It has however been almost seven years since she left her native country after being displaced by civil war, and crossed the border into Lebanon. 

It was there where she had her second son and also where she studied how to provide psychological support for children dealing with grief and loss. Chahira had previously studied Maths in the University of Damascus but was not able to complete her degree before fleeing the war. 

Her husband Ahmed had been arrested by the regime in Syria and Chahira had to leave Syria alone with her then one-year-old child. 

Ahmed subsequently made his way into Lebanon as well, but had to do so through mountains at night, with several of the group he was part of being arrested after they crossed the border. Several others who made the same journey the following day died after one of them stepped on a landmine. 

Chahira and her family now live in Dublin after arriving in December 2019 when they were approved by a UN programme. Their personal story may be unique to them, but it is also similar to millions of other families who’ve made similar journeys of refuge throughout the world. 

Humanitarian crisis

As the global focus switches to a humanitarian crisis that will follow the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the fate of hundreds of thousands of refugees will be front and centre. 

For those who will be forced to leave Afghanistan and start a new life elsewhere, Chahira says it is about acknowledging that the choice was not theirs. 

“I’m really, really sorry for them. It is so hard to see your country destroyed in front of your eyes. And the same for your dreams, your life,” she says. 

But that will not change the fact that life has become really difficult and it will be more dangerous day by day. There’s no longer safety for anyone, so they must be brave, and not be ashamed to be refugees in any country in the world.

“War was never our choice and we didn’t decide to leave.  Those who invented war in our country are the ones who should be ashamed. They just have to be brave to have a good future and a good life. All we dream about is to have a normal life.” 

Ireland has so far committed to providing 200 additional humanitarian visas for Afghans under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney saying he expects “a lot more” will ultimately be granted protection in this country. 

In a joint letter sent to several ministers including Coveney, the Taoiseach and Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman, 12 human rights and migrant organisations called for Ireland to resettle a minimum of 1,000 Afghan refugees. 

The letter claims that Ireland had set a target of resettling 1,350 refugees in 2020 and 2021 but that due to Covid-19 and other factors the number is so far just 250, “leaving 1,100 places unfilled”.

The groups say the UNHCR estimates that there are already approximately 96,000 Afghan people in need of resettlement around the world, with many in neighbouring countries. 

This was the situation Chahira found herself in after five years living in the Beqaa region in Lebanon, which is still home to about 340,000 Syrian refugees

“After Syria, the situation in Lebanon was so bad. We were suffering a lot there and I believe the same is the case for every Syrian living there. It is so hard to survive after coming from a very bloody war and putting everything behind you to come to an unwelcoming country where there is violence,” she tells The Journal.

So the best solution there for us was to travel but unfortunately that was not a decision I could take on my own. I had to wait for the UN to choose and say we are fine to travel. And then I had to do a lot of interviews and meeting with them. After that they choose the country I’m going to travel to. This was no decision for me. They informed me about this only one month before my travel date, which made me really nervous. I didn’t know anything about it but I had to move from Lebanon. I just wanted to move, I just wanted to travel. Because there is no future there. At that time, I didn’t think about me at all, it was just for my two little boys. I want them to lead a safe life, a normal life.

PastedImage-19801 Chahira Bourhan and family.

Community sponsorship

Chahira and her family moved to Ireland as part of a pilot programme in which they did not go through the usual route of being part of the State resettlement programme. This route involves going to a reception centre, like the one in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon

Instead, the family were resettled as part of a community sponsorship programme in south Dublin that was supported by the Irish Red Cross. 

Such sponsorship programmes involve a community group preparing for the arrival of a family by putting together a settlement plan which includes raising funds and securing accommodation.

After the family’s arrival, the group acts as a kind of support bubble for the family to help them as they adjust to their new surroundings. 

Anna Kierans was part of the sponsorship programme, Home from Home D6, that helped Chahira and her family. 

“We’re just community members with big hearts, we’re not specialists, we all have expertise in our own right as professionals in different areas, but none of this is necessarily related to working with refugees, ” she explains.

We just really wanted to befriend, we want to welcome them into our community and just help them settle in a really organic way. It’s just a really natural integration, which I think is a lovely thing and is healthy for them.

She explains that the onset of the pandemic made it a lot more difficult for the group to provide the level of support they may otherwise have been able to, but that it also taught them lessons they would hope could be used in the future.  

For example, though Chahira speaks of the “unforgettable moment” her family were met at the airport by Home from Home D6, Anna says the ubiquity of Zoom and other technology could be better used to build a rapport and trust with a family before they even leave for Ireland.  

She also explains the process around securing a home for the arriving family, which starts off like any other house hunt. 

It’s just like any normal situation. If you want to get a house you’ve got to go on Daft, you’ve got to look for it. There’s no special treatment, the family with refugee status are entitled HAP, but you still need to find the accommodation, which is a massive challenge. And you’ve also got to find a landlord that is willing to accept HAP and also find a landlord that’s willing to work with unpredictable timeframes, because we are not able to be matched with a family until we have accommodation secured.

The Open Community

The Open Community is the national support organisation for this sponsorship model, with Amnesty International among those who have championed it.

Amnesty Ireland’s executive director Colm O’Gorman told The Journal that such community groups can be any garda vetted collection of people, be they a local group, a work group or a sporting association. 

He explains that the nub of the matter is that the group must be committed to supporting the resettled family:

The programme gives lots and lots of support, there’s training, there’s development for the group, there’s assistance in developing their resettlement plan, that’s what they have to do first before they’re approved, and then a match is made with the family.

O’Gorman adds that part of the advantage of this model is that people often want to assist with refugee integration but don’t know how best to help.

For example, some people might say they’d be happy to use a spare room in their house but this isn’t suitable for a family of refugees.  

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“Five or six years ago, when little Alan Kurdi’s body was found on a beach in Turkey, people were angry and upset and heartbroken but the thing we heard from people most was that they felt powerless and hopeless. That’s why with sponsorship it allows people to be powerful and be part of the solution in an impactful way.”

Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP)

Amnesty Ireland was among the signatories to that letter sent to government this week with O’Gorman saying he believes the sponsorship programme gives Ireland “significant capacity” to do more, as per the government’s pledge.

In a statement to The Journal, a spokesperson for the Department of Integration said the 200 number of Afghan refugees being prepared for “is being kept under review” and that arrangements will be made to support their arrival. 

On the question of whether there are over 1,100 “unfilled” resettlement places over the current two-year period, the department points to its target by the end of next year and says efforts will be made to ensure that target is met. 

“The Irish government has pledged to resettle 2,900 people by 2023. Covid-19 seriously impacted on this work. An IRPP team in Beirut in March 2020 was forced to return due to the Covid-19 outbreak,” the department says. 

“The team will return to Lebanon in September to recommence interviews with the aim of restarting resettlement from Lebanon and Jordan. Refugees from Syria who are temporarily resident in these countries still remain in desperate need of help and are often living in very difficult conditions.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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