Tears of relief as Tripoli teachers arrive home
Anxious wait over for families of young school staff forced to flee
Published 25/02/2011 | 05:00
THEY left Ireland full of hope just a few months ago to escape the crippling recession and to take up their first full-time jobs abroad.
Yesterday, there were hugs and tears of relief from family and friends as a group of five young teachers arrived back home, having fled gunfire and riots on the terror-stricken streets of the Libyan capital.
The teachers, who had all recently taken up posts at the International School of Martyrs in Tripoli, were among the first ex-pats who managed to escape after hiding out in a safe house.
And they thanked the generosity of a German pilot who went around Tripoli airport asking for passengers to fill his flight, which brought the group to safety in Istanbul.
The flight of the Irish also included Dublin City University (DCU) emeritus professor Helena Sheehan, who told how she had been "abandoned" by her academic hosts in a Tripoli hotel and left to fend for herself.
It was only thanks to Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office that she got on a flight to Gatwick, she said.
"I knew it was dangerous (to go there), but I didn't think it would be so bad," said Ms Sheehan, who arrived back in Dublin yesterday.
Ms Sheehan revealed how, after getting to Tripoli airport, their bus drove in circles around the tarmac for 45 minutes searching in vain for the Air Corps plane that had made an unsuccessful attempt to airlift the Irish to Valletta in Malta.
Yesterday, one of the teachers, Lisa Ruane (25) from Castlebar, revealed that two of the young pupils in her class were grandchildren of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi.
"There were bodyguards outside my classroom every day, but they were really nice," she told the Irish Independent.
Lisa, along with her boyfriend, Fintan Coen (26) from Roscommon, had been delighted to find work at the International School of Martyrs and had stayed with colleagues at a house in a compound at the school.
But by last Thursday the country had slipped into chaos as the 'day of rage' kickstarted a clash between democracy protesters and the Gaddafi regime. The teachers began to fear for their lives as gunfire erupted and thousands of protesters poured onto the streets.
By Sunday, they were urged to get out and thanks to the help of a Libyan family, managed to hide in a safe house until Tuesday when they tried to get a flight out of Tripoli airport.
"There were thousands of people outside the airport and they (security guards) started beating people back with batons," said Lisa.
"The three men in our group were not let in and we started begging and pleading with the guards, saying they were our husbands and saying 'Irish, Irish'.
"Eventually, they let us all through and we were lucky to come across this German pilot, Guido Fromme. He was amazing and let us on his flight. He even asked us to email him to let him know that we had arrived home safely."
Sinead Coen from Roscommon, Fintan's sister, claimed yesterday that Irish families at home "got no help" from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
"I spoke to Foreign Affairs and suggested on Monday that we should send out a jet, but I was told it would cost too much," she told the Irish Independent, after meeting Fintan at Dublin airport.
"When they did act, it was too little, too late. What also annoyed me was the reports that the department had contacted families in Ireland. They did nothing of the sort."
Ms Sheehan managed to get out of Tripoli thanks to the help of the "professional and fantastic" in the UK's Foreign Office.
She said she was put on a free flight to Gatwick, but then had to fork out €300 on a one-way Aer Lingus ticket to Dublin.
"The Irish evacuation failed, so I was on the British evacuation, so thank you to the British taxpayers and the British Foreign Office," she said.
Deirdre Toomey (28) from Clonard, Co Wexford said the saddest part of their dramatic flight to freedom was that they had not had the chance to say goodbye to colleagues and the "26 little kids" they left behind.
"On Sunday night we realised things were changing fast and that night we feared for our lives. We could hear gunshots and chanting."
They were greeted with "total chaos" when they reached the airport on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, English teacher Claire Walsh (30) from Newbridge, Co Kildare, who had been stranded in Tripoli, made her father's birthday yesterday a special one when she phoned home from Malta to tell him she was safe.
She was expected to fly into Dublin last night from Gatwick.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said, concerning the dozen Irish people in Benghazi, that evacuations by sea were due to take place yesterday evening, dependant on local conditions.