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Gráinne Ní Aodha/
Suaad Alshleh

'I hope to be a success story for what a refugee can do. Direct Provision - you can escape it'

Suaad Alshleh, a teenage refugee from Syria, was today awarded a bursary for medicine by Minister Joe McHugh.

SUAAD ALSHLEH, A seventeen year old Syrian refugee, has been awarded a scholarship for medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons today.

The Professor William C Campbell Scholar, held in honour of the Nobel Prize winner from Co Donegal, is eligible for a €5,000 annual bursary for students aiming to study a primary degree in zoology, medicine, physiology or biomedical sciences.

Surrounded by journalists, cameramen and photographers, this year’s scholar Suaad tells the Education Minister Joe McHugh that after leaving Direct Provision after nine months, she hopes to be an example for those in Direct Provision.

“I just hope I can be a success story for what a refugee, even though they are refugee, can do. And I just want to represent Syria, and refugees in general, in a good way.

I hope to be a success story, sort of to show that Direct Provision – you can escape it.

Suaad Alshleh went into Direct Provision at the age of 14 at a centre in Monaghan. She describes studying for her Junior Cert during that time as difficult, where she was sharing a small room with her mother, and was away from her father.

Nine months later they left the system, and went to live in Portlaoise, Co Laois. She also chose to go to school in Mountmellick – so that she could study chemistry as part of her Leaving Cert. 

“They were high, yes,” she replies when asked how many points she got. Suaad’s mother Wisam and Isham – a civil engineer from Aleppo and a mechanical engineer from Idlib, respectively – both learned English after arriving in Ireland. 

They actually missed one of their class to attend the event today honouring their daughter’s high achievements.

Fittingly, the ceremony is held in the ornate boardroom of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, where Suaad is studying, with a keen interest in surgery. 

She’s surrounded by portraits of former giants of the college – including paintings of female doctors and deans who were recently added to the room “and have changed the whole feeling” in the room, we’re told. 

As paintings like that of Sr Dr Maura Lynch was pointed out, who obtained a Fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons in order to fulfil the need for a specialist surgeon in Angola, Suaad is told “like you she was an Irish graduate, and you’ll be following in that tradition”. 

Direct Provision

I think ‘inhumane’ is a step too far. It’s definitely not great, I’m sure there are better solutions. It is tough, it is terrible, especially for young people.

“But, I mean, I don’t see any alternative. The fact that Ireland is taking in refugees I think is incredible, and hopefully communities will be more accepting in the future.”

Suaad also adds that the Irish communities she was a part of were always welcoming to her and her family – but she was unusual to them at first. 

“I’m proud to say I have loads of Irish friends and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she says. “Especially for me, there was an incredible support in the community itself where I was in there studying, my school, even the people who are in the centre running it, they provided a lot of support for me.

And I think that’s the incredible thing about it, despite it being a horrible, tough process, you know, you’ll find nice people everywhere.

Her advice to those in Direct Provision is to ”power through”: “There is a light at the end of the tunnel – I know it’s a cliché, but there is”.

“In these first few weeks in the college, when I’m sitting down and I just reflect on coming here for the Open Day in 2018… and my exams… and I’ve made it, it’s an incredible feeling – so work hard and no matter what the difficulty is, you will get there.”

“We have to look at what’s working, because obviously there are tensions,” Minister McHugh said to reporters afterwards. 

“You have to look at what best works for a particular community as well, and most communities are welcoming. Obviously, communities just wanted to ensure that the facilities of services are there for people coming in as well, be that the education services, or health services.

In terms of the numbers involved, it is difficult, it’s a difficult thing and we are a small island. But one thing is for sure that our own history dictates the point that we were welcomed in other countries down the centuries. 

“It’s in our DNA to be welcoming, and I think that was conveyed by Suaad here today.”

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