Wednesday 29 January 2020

Home is where the heart is - two Syrian sisters want to become doctors to help the war victims

Syrian sisters Diana and Loujin Shakrdi hope to study medicine here to help people affected by war

Diana and Loujin Shakrdi hope to study medicine. Photo: Damien Eagers
Diana and Loujin Shakrdi hope to study medicine. Photo: Damien Eagers

Andrea Smith

They love fashion and beauty, but on a deeper level, Syrian sisters Diana and Loujin Shakrdi have had very different experiences to their fellow teenagers both in their home country and in Ireland. They grew up in Aleppo, a city currently ravaged by war. The beautiful, mannerly girls live here now, where their Irish friends are concerned with normal teenage issues.

"My friend in Syria worries that her brother will survive because he was shot, and my friend here worries about whether her boyfriend will call her," says Diana. "Irish teenagers don't really understand how important family is. Most want to finish school and leave Ireland, but they don't understand the significance of being able to live where you're born."

Growing up in a then peaceful Aleppo, Diana, 18, and Loujin, 17, lived very happily in a house in the city with their younger sister Auiia, 14, brother Abdul, 13, and parents Loai and Rawia, both of whom were doctors. They went to Egypt when the Syrian civil war began in 2011 for what was meant to be a couple of weeks, but as the situation became increasingly dangerous, they were unable to return home. "We brought hardly any clothes, and our house is still back there with all of our stuff," says Loujin. "We were only given a day's notice that we were leaving, so we never really got to say our goodbyes. We thought the war would be over in a matter of weeks and we could go back to Syria."

The family remained in Egypt for two years, and moved to Ireland two-and-a-half years ago. Their dad is a researcher at UCD and their mum is now doing exams to convert her qualifications. "I didn't like the idea of moving again but our parents told us about the advantages we would have with education and our future in Ireland," says Loujin. "I hope to study medicine because I want to help people who develop diseases in the war or become injured. Whenever there's a bombing in Aleppo, we text everyone to see if they are okay so we are constantly worrying about everyone. I'm glad that we left before we saw the destruction, as I would be heartbroken to see my beautiful Syria destroyed."

The Shakrdi family have settled in Maynooth, and the girls joined Maynooth Post-Primary School in fifth year. They speak Arabic at home so studying through English was a huge change for them. Diana got 560 points in the Leaving Cert, and is in first year of biomedical science at NUI, Maynooth, She really wants to do medicine next year and had the points for it this year, but didn't get in when it was combined with her HPAT-Ireland score.

Loujin is repeating her Leaving Cert and is also hoping to get into medicine. She achieved an excellent 450 points, which is amazing when you consider the upheaval both girls have experienced and the fact that English is not their first language. "We always got on well, but when we left Syria, we became best friends because all we had was each other," says Loujin. "Diana is a really hard worker, and she is always there for me. She helps me with study and also emotionally."

Diana and Loujin would love to go back to visit Aleppo - they haven't seen their grandparents in five years - but could only go if it was safe to do so. They also feel very sorry for the friends that are left behind, because life is very unstable for them. "They have limited access to education," says Diana. "They don't have the same opportunities we have, and it's really hard for them as they can miss classes as it's too dangerous to go to school or university. Our friends look at our lives and they would love to be here too."

The girls' situation ties in with international children's charity, Plan International Ireland's, Girl Takeover Day on Tuesday, the UN International Day of the Girl. In Ireland, the aim is to show that girls here are standing in solidarity with their counterparts who don't have the same opportunities. Girl Takeover will see young girls from across the world step into the shoes of political, social and economic leaders in a symbolic "takeover" in more than 50 countries, including Ireland, where various takeover events are planned.

Loujin says that they don't even know the true extent of what their friends in Syria are experiencing. "You don't know it until you live it," she says. "It's very frightening for them over there, and most of the girls are dropping out of school to work as they are unable to afford the basics like food, clothes and medicine. I have dreams and I want them to come true, but you can't make those dreams come true in Syria. The war doesn't only kill people, it kills dreams, futures, opportunities and everything else."

Diana says that Loujin is very funny and less shy than she is, so they balance each other out. They fight over clothes occasionally but love to dance, go to the movies and go shopping. "Our parents always told us that because we have lost everything, education is all we have," they say. "They made us understand that it's the only thing that will stay with you forever, so that is why we keep working hard."

Plan International's Girl Takeover Day takes place on Tuesday, Join in with the events on #GirlTakeover @PlanIreland

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