Ireland welcomed me but many more fellow Syrians need help
Published 26/03/2016 | 02:30
When I first came to Ireland, it was to follow those Irishmen who had long captured my imagination. The Yeats and Joyce I read back in Syria drew me to my dream of postgraduate work, musing 'Under Ben Bulben' or on the trail of Stephen, Leopold and Molly.
I still remember the day I landed in Dublin Airport on a student visa. I had a bagful of memories and longings which I lugged along to a new city I didn't know a single soul in. It was lonely and hard, not to mention cold.
With the support of my teachers at the University of Limerick, and an ever-widening circle of kind Irish friends and colleagues, I got the helping hand we all need at some stage in our lives. I struggled for long hours in libraries, through hundreds of books and thousands of pages, endless exams, presentations and term papers. And I managed an A1 in my MA research.
But as caps flew high on graduation day, I couldn't help but think of Plato's Ghost as imagined by Yeats singing, 'What then?' Back home, a war had started that was getting worse. More than 200,000 people had already been killed, half a million injured and maimed, nine million displaced. There was practically no home to return to.
I worked in hospitals and courts as a translator, then as an English language teacher and an academic manager. I landed a job in a leading social media company here in Dublin, and now I work as a journalist with Storyful and consider myself incredibly lucky to be part of it.
Of course, I worried about my family. I still can't forget my brother's words on the phone: "I can't wait any longer. At least I have a chance on a boat. I can swim."
I felt the world was collapsing around me. I imagined him on a rubber boat in the middle of the night, about to sink in the treacherous Mediterranean waters. There was a voice deep down inside me, telling me things will somehow be OK. Just hold on and be strong a bit longer. I promised my brother I would get him out, no matter what.
Under the Irish government's private sponsorship scheme, the 'Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme' (SHAP), I was able to bring him to Ireland. The process was long but, eventually, my application was approved. I can't explain how relieved I was to be reunited with him.
My brother adapted quickly to Ireland and the Irish way of life. For the first few weeks, he could not believe he was sleeping quietly without hearing bombs and bullets day in, day out. He did his first ever interview in English after only one and a half months in Ireland, and he got the job. He is working now in the Arabic department of a prestigious social media company in Dublin. He said to me recently: "I feel I belong here. I'm having the time of my life. I love Guinness and adore the Irish weather."
Not all stories of refugees end up happily ever after, though. There were applications in respect of 308 people to come to Ireland under the SHAP, but only 119 were approved. There are many Irish Syrians who desperately want to help their families reach safety. Almost 300 Syrians have arrived since 2014, with more to come this year. For many, their joy at reaching safety is bitter-sweet, tinged by remorse at the thought of family members who were not so fortunate.
Many others who escaped the war find themselves living in precarious circumstances. Of the 1.7 million Syrians officially registered in Jordan and Lebanon, the majority are unable to afford the basics, including sufficient food, clothes and medicine, according to a recent World Bank Study.
Children are dropping out of school to work and help their parents make ends meet, while the universities have emptied of young people. As many as six out of seven Syrian university students outside the country are not continuing any form of higher education or advanced training, according to some studies.
It is little wonder that many have taken the decision to travel to Europe. Of the more than one million people who risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean in 2015, Syrians represented the highest percentage (49pc).
Next Wednesday, March 30, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will host a meeting in Geneva calling on states to show solidarity with Syrians and the countries who host them, by taking more refugees. There are 4.8 million Syrian refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria. At least 10pc are vulnerable and in need of resettlement or other safe and legal pathways to safety. Student scholarships, private sponsorship programmes, or similar programmes that exist in Canada - which allow private citizens, NGOs and churches to sponsor refugees - would help them do so.
Giving them the opportunity to reach safety would not only take the pressure off countries such as Turkey, which now hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. It would allow people with real abilities and ambition to realise their potential.
The meeting in Geneva is an opportunity to do so and for Ireland to give as big and warm a welcome as it gave my brother and me to many more Syrians in desperate need.