Two Irish boys who would go to ends of earth for us
IT BEGAN with a tweet and ended with an interview on Bondi Rescue. Like many others, I followed the #jailbreak14 hashtag which trended on Twitter last weekend.
Jailbreak is an annual university charity event that challenges students to get as far away as possible from Kilmainham Gaol in 36 hours, with no money. Over 200 students from TCD, UCD, NUIG and UCC participated in the event, with Jamaica, Bali, Hawaii and Singapore as some of the final destinations. The event raised almost €40,000 for Amnesty International and St Vincent de Paul.
Kyryll Chulak, 20, and Salim Sebaoui, 21, from Trinity College Dublin, had tweeted from Abu Dhabi that they were flying into Sydney. Knowing they had no money, I replied and offered them accommodation and food.
The two medical students reached Sydney with 10 minutes to spare before the cut-off time, winning the competition. They got to the other side of the world with the luck of standby tickets sponsored by a tour company. We met at the main railway station in Sydney.
It was a leap of faith, on both our parts, to live together for the week, given we had never met before. At the end of the week, we decided to go surfing on Bondi Beach for Kyryll and Salim's last day. The surf was terrible and the high tide made the swell almost impossible to crash through. Salim's national swimming medals got him past the waves on his surfboard. Kyryll and I tried to body board instead. The famous riptides on Bondi sucked us in and we swirled around for 20 minutes, gradually being brought out to sea.
Our predicament had attracted a large crowd on the beach, including Bondi lifeguards and the television crew of Bondi Rescue. Eventually the rip curl let me go. I turned around and for a terrifying moment, Salim had disappeared. The lifeguard went in and brought him back on his board. Before we had collected our breaths, the TV crew was asking us to describe what happened. You never want to see the inside of a rip curl. It's the only time you know what the inside of a washing machine feels like.
In my week with the two students, I also learned to appreciate an Ireland I knew nothing about.
Kyryll moved to Kilkenny from the city of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov in the Ukraine with his family when he was 11. He showed me a picture of himself standing in Independence Square in Kiev, the day he left for Ireland. Kyryll finds it "weird now, looking at the news and seeing the absolute chaos and violence". The Ukraine crisis is a tragic news story to Kyryll, the same as it is for every other Irish person.
His Irish identity was forged playing hurling for Dicksboro GAA club, just outside Kilkenny. People "became a lot more accepting" when they saw him as a centre back and not as Ukrainian because "if people are on the same team then they just start bonding and stuff." He says this in a thick Kilkenny brogue of which he is particularly proud.
Kyryll had some English before he started in CBS Kilkenny but found the Irish dialect very difficult. Seven years later he achieved joint top Leaving Cert points in the country and won the prestigious JP McManus scholarship. Bill Clinton presented him with the award.
Despite the initial language barrier and acclimation to a new culture, Kyryll and Salim each got 625 points – enough to secure them places on Ireland's most competitive medical course.
"We came here for a better life and I'm glad my parents made that choice," Salim says of his arrival from Budapest when he was 15. Hungarian and Arabic are his native languages, so he avoided asking questions when he first started in Terenure College. He credits his Algerian father for his academic success.
"Since I was young, he worked really hard to provide me with the best education and I am just really grateful," he says. His dad works in Lidl, and, like Kyryll, comes from a modest background.
These are the New Irish.
Kyryll and Salim become animated on the subject of embattled Justice Minister Alan Shatter. Shatter is responsible for reforming Irish citizenship law, removing the four-year backlog and promising a review of all applications within six months.
Salim's Irish citizenship ceremony in the IFSC last October was an "emotional moment." He doesn't believe that citizenship is necessary for someone to feel Irish because he already felt he was. It was about being officially accepted. He remembers Shatter's speech almost word for word, especially the emphasis that "anyone who becomes a citizen can run for office. You don't know if the person sitting next to you will be the next president, or if their children will".
Salim notes that the current and former prime ministers of Australia are the children of emigrants. They will vote for the first time in May at the local and European elections, a day that Kyryll and Salim compare to collecting their Leaving Cert results.
It was about "standing up and singing the national anthem, and to be pronounced Irish" for Kyryll. Will they stay in Ireland whey they qualify? Salim is emphatic. "My number one priority is to become a doctor. I aim to stay in Ireland. That's where I feel home."
"All my friends and family are in Ireland, why would I leave?" says Kyryll.
The Irish Ambassador to Australia, Noel White, sent Kyryll and Salim a tweet to congratulate them on their Jailbreak success. It means more to them than he realises. "He actually mentioned us as being great ambassadors of Ireland. It can't get any better than that," Salim says.