Monday 21 May 2018

'You muddle through and you work things out' - meet the Irish couple sharing their home with a Syrian refugee

'The three of us, we get along well. It’s worked out so well. It’s been great, it really has' - Roisin

Ahmed (22), from Syria pictured in Rathgar, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Ahmed (22), from Syria pictured in Rathgar, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Sasha Brady

When Roisin and Martin from Rathgar, Dublin decided to welcome Ahmed, a Syrian refugee, into their home for 12 months they weren’t sure what to expect.

It can be daunting living with a stranger. Ahmed was just as apprehensive. He had very little English and he was very far from home.

Ahmed (22) has fond memories of his country.

He was just a teenager when the war broke out in Syria and he remembers the cinemas, the libraries, the museums and the cafes of Aleppo. He remembers how colourful his city looked before it was reduced to dust and ruins.

Aleppo's devastated old market (Mstyslav Chernov/AP)
Aleppo's devastated old market (Mstyslav Chernov/AP)

His family were hopeful the war wouldn’t last. In 2015, four years into the war and a year after Ahmed started university to study Arabic Literature, he realised he’d have to leave home if he wanted to survive.

"It was no longer safe, I had to leave. This war has destroyed everything. There was no future for me in Syria," said Ahmed.

"Even getting to university was difficult, you had to pass the checkpoints, there were soldiers everywhere. Normal life didn’t exist. I felt like there was no future in Syria anymore, only death."

Ahmed discussed the possibility of leaving Syria with his family and at first his parents refused. It was impossible for the family to leave together and they didn’t want Ahmed to go alone. Eventually they relented when Ahmed outlined his plans for a better life.

Ahmed, 22, from Syria Picture: Caroline Quinn
Ahmed, 22, from Syria Picture: Caroline Quinn

The journey to Ireland was long.

Ahmed spent five months in Turkey to earn money for his trip. He then tried to make his way to Greece but the border was closed and he had to spend two months there in a camp.

Eventually he crossed the border and arrived in a refugee camp in Thessaloniki where he applied to travel to Ireland under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. Six months after arriving at the camp, he finally got a call from the Irish Embassy requesting an interview.

"I’ll never forget that call. I’d wanted to go to Ireland because I felt I would be safe there. I’d heard stories about Irish people being friendly and they spoke English and I felt like that would be a useful language for me to learn. I thought, maybe I could be happy here," said Ahmed.

Two and a half months later, in December 2016, Ahmed was cleared to travel to Ireland along with 130 other refugees. He spent nine months in the direct provision centre in Mosney. While he was relieved to be in Ireland, he said he felt uncomfortable without a job or his studies.

"Mosney was nice. I met some good people there, there was a beach nearby but my time at the centre was a little bit difficult because I couldn’t work or meet Irish people. I wanted to mix with local people and practice my English, get a job and start my new life but in Mosney I felt frozen, stuck," said Ahmed.

Ahmed, 22, from Syria Picture: Caroline Quinn
Ahmed, 22, from Syria Picture: Caroline Quinn

Ahmed contacted the Irish Red Cross to see what other options were available to him.

They advised him that he could stay with a host family where he could practice his English and integrate with the local community. For Ahmed, it seemed too good to be true so he put his name forward and waited to hear back.

In Rathgar in Dublin, Martin and Roisin had volunteered to host in their home for 12 months as part of the appeal. The couple said it seemed like a "no brainer" when they first considered it.

"We both had a similar response: ‘this is the right thing to do’; we have plenty of space and it wasn’t a big deal," Martin told Independent.ie.

"We rang up and said we can put our names down. In 18 months the Red Cross came back to us to see if the offer was still good. Within a week of that call we were being introduced to Ahmed to see if there was a compatibility.

"We liked the cut of his jib and he arrived about a week later."

Ahmed moved in with Roisin and Martin in September 2017. Initially there was a slight "awkward" phase as the three adjusted to living together but Roisin said it was no different to having a "relative stay, one that you wouldn’t know terribly well".

"The initial apprehension would be normal, at some level we wondered was this going to work," said Roisin.

"And there's going to be the initial 'getting to know you' phase and you work out practical things to do with meals and laundry. It was probably more difficult for Ahmed to come and stay with us but you muddle through and you work things out."

A week after Ahmed moved to Rathgar, he found a course in Rathmines College which was accessible to refugees, allowing him to study IT skills four days a week. He then prepared and circulated his CV and found a job in a four-star hotel.

"Ahmed has great initiative, he sees an opening and he goes for it," said Martin.

"With his job, he’s starting from the bottom but it’s a good earner so he’s got both the structure of the course, as well as a job. This arrangement is doing what the Red Cross envisioned; giving a refugee the opportunity to practice English, learn about local custom and culture and begin to transition to the world of work here. It's worked out very neatly so far."

For Ahmed, the opportunity to study, earn a living and meet Irish people was exactly what he was looking for.

"I didn’t expect that I would meet people as kind as Roisin and Martin," he said.

"Sometimes I think I’m living in another universe. They have put so much trust in me, they’re so generous. It’s nice to have people to discuss things with, discuss life, what’s going on in the world… we talk a lot.

"My family were so surprised but for them it is a relief to know that I am safe and working towards a good future. Martin and Roisin really support me, they give me good advice and push me to keep going in life."

Ahmed has already mapped out his career path. He spoke with An Garda Siochana’s intercultural officer about applying for the next opening for the garda reserve.

He feels the job will bring him good security. Before the war broke out, he never considered he would be carving out a life for himself so far from home. He was forced out of his country by war and although it wasn't his choice, Ahmed feels like he has adjusted to his life in Ireland.

"I haven’t really had any bad experiences. I’ve been lucky to have made a lot of friends here. I understand the Irish sense of humour, I think that helps a lot. I respect the tradition and cultures here and people respect mine, people are open-minded. I’ve been very lucky."

The hardest part of living in Ireland is knowing that his family are still struggling in a war-torn country. While he keeps in contact with them on social media, he said he’s haunted by visions of what their life is like. He finds it difficult to watch the news.

"I lost a lot of friends during this war. I left my family behind and it’s been two and a half years and sometimes I forget how my sister looks, the shape of her eyes. I see the photos that they send me on WhatsApp but it’s not the same as reality, you know… being with them in real life.

"I miss my family but I feel like I am living with family here. Roisin and Martin look after me and I look after them."

For Martin and Roisin, it’s been a "rich" experience. Their favourite part of the day is when the trio sit down to dinner and talk. Ahmed has taught them a lot about Islam, the politics of the Middle East but he’s still struggling to teach them Arabic.

"I was a very bad student on my first lesson," joked Roisin. "It’s just so difficult but he’s very patient."

Roisin and Martin said it was a sobering experience to see the complex politics of the Middle East through Ahmed’s eyes.

"In the eyes of a Syrian, there are very few friends in the world," said Martin. "Very few people have opened their borders. The world is not a very friendly place looking outwards and thinking ‘who has come to our assistance in response to attacks from our own government?’"

"It opens your eyes to a whole new world you know very little about," added Roisin. "You gain a lot, you learn a lot.

"The Red Cross programme does allow you the opportunity to do something. How many times have Irish people over the years - and I would be one of them - looked at the news or opened a newspaper and have seen these awful atrocities and the devastation and destruction that has happening across the world and thought ‘I want to do something?’ Most of the time you’re helpless, you actually can’t do anything.

"This programme just struck me - this was this is something tangible, it may be small but it’s something tangible that we could do. That’s a really positive experience rather than holding your hands up in despair and not being able to do anything.

"And the three of us, we get along well. It’s worked out so well. It’s been great, it really has."

For Ahmed, it’s been a "dream come true" and a chance to start over.

"Three years ago I felt like I had no future but now I am doing more than I thought possible. Sometimes I can't quite believe it."

Online Editors

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News