From war-torn Syria to Tralee

Last Wednesday was World Refugee Day. To highlight the issue of displacement, reporter Sinead Kelleher spoke with Tralee-based Syrian refugee Wael Awad who recalled his long journey from war-torn Syria to Kerry

Wael Awad hands his children's school reports over to me with pride and says, "my children have a future now."

These words sum up why Wael and his family fled Syria to try and find a better life, why five years of hell have been worth it to ensure his children are safe from the fear of being recruited to fight, or killed in a bomb attack.

Wael is from Syria and is a refugee. He has been living in Kerry for almost three years having fled his homeland for the Lebanon in 2013. He chose to flee to save his family.

Last Wednesday was World Refugee day - raising awareness of the millions of people who are forced to flee their homes - but Wael hates the word 'refugee'.

"We are all people. Give us a chance. You hear people say that we don't want refugees in our country. Why are people scared of refugees. Why don't they give us a chance? And after they know us, they can say if we are good or bad."

He says that refugees are fleeing their homes for one reason alone: safety.

"Why else would you choose any of this?

"I don't believe people leave for money everyone has enough. War is happening and they can't stay. It is a danger for their children. A lot of people have seen children die from bombs. We come to find peace for us and for our children."

This is why Wael chose to leave Syria, and using all his financial resources to cross the border, he and his wife, their two young children - Majd and Fahd - and Waed's older children, Ahmad and Rahf, fled to the Lebanon.

"I was scared for my children. I had two young children.

"If I stayed in Syria they would make me fight; they take anyone young to fight. They give you no choice. They break into your house and take you to fight," he said.

For Wael and most ordinary Syrians it is not their war.

"It is an international war. It is more than Syria; it is the US, Russia, and other countries. They call it a civil war but it is not. It is an international war."

Prior to war in Syria, life was difficult. It was effectively a dictatorship with, what Wael states, afforded little human rights. Kidnappings for ransom were common, particularly if the leadership was criticised.

"You had to pay money for everything. If you have money you can do anything. You have to make friends to all those close to the leadership to do things. They have the power."

Despite this, Wael had a good life, he was an engineer and, as he states, "stayed away from problems with the Government". However, after war broke out, life changed for the worse. There was a state of constant fear and Wael says that people couldn't walk outside their door. "You didn't know when people would come to get you," Wael explained and said that's why he eventually chose to leave.

He says the full story of what exactly is going on in Syria has never been told.

"What you watch is about five per cent of what is really happening, and it is not all the story; not all the media tells the truth. We are paying for problems in other countries," he explained.

"It was a hard decision. It was a lot of our money, all of our money. We left everything. We didn't bring bags, just the clothes we were wearing."

Wael and his family crossed the border to the Lebanon where life was remained tough. While there was peace to some extent, there was no possibility of building a life; they couldn't work and were living in a hut.

More importantly, Wael's children couldn't go to school and his health deteriorated as medical attention was an impossibility.

"You are illegal in the Lebanon. You can't get papers unless you have money. We are not working so we can't pay. We have no school for the children. We have no hope; sometimes people did the wrong thing and killed themselves. There was close to one million Syrians and the country is smaller than Ireland."

The UN was on hand to assist the refugees, and they asked Wael and his family to travel overseas. They met with officials from Ireland, including from the Department of Justice, and several interviews later Wael was informed they would review his application.

"They asked me about my whole life from when I was born to that day," he says.

Seven months later, in January 2016, he was on his way to Ireland. Prior to this, Wael had only heard of Ireland once or twice.

"A friend of mine I worked with in Damascus with had gone to holidays in Ireland. I thought it was part of the UK.

"On one side I was happy, but on the other side I was sad that I had to go so far away. I was scared of the new language, the new people. Everything would be different. I was scared of everything, but after coming I realised I had the wrong idea. I was scared that people wouldn't like refugees, but after I got here Irish people are so nice so friendly."

Wael was first accommodated in a hotel in Waterford which, although it provided him with security and all the basics, it was still a difficult life. He was glad to leave the hotel behind.

"They came and told me they had found a house in Kerry, in Tralee - a place I had never heard of," he says.

Wael can still remember that first night in his new town. "I remember my first day here, I try to go out and get some food. I get lost and I don't speak English, so I can't ask; I only know 'hello' or 'goodbye' and I walk around for an hour trying to find the house."

It wasn't long though before Wael settled into life in Tralee. He got huge support from Tralee International Resource Centre, Kerry County Council and the gardaí, but mostly the local people have made him feel welcome.

"Everyone has been very positive. I think Irish and Syrians are close. Syrians also welcomed others to their country when they were in trouble, and the Irish do too. I have not met anybody bad and hopefully I won't."

As a Muslim, his religion is important, but he also likes that Irish people understand the religion and rarely question it or raise it as an issue.

"If I leave here and come back I feel like I am home. Some people think Cork is better, but I think Kerry is the best place in the world. I have very good neighbours and I start to forget my country; I have been gone six years now."

Though Wael gets emotional about the family members he has left behind, he has thankfully been reunited with some of his family, including his brother who is now working in Manor West. While Wael is currently not working, he is determined to settle into life in Kerry, and learning English is his focus, to help him gain employment and meet more people.

But life in Ireland has been made easier by the friendliness of the Irish people.

Most importantly for Wael, though, his children have now settled in.

"They have Kerry accents, and they love the Irish language, they think it is like Arabic. They come here when they are young, so they don't have memories like us."

His eldest daughter is studying at IT Tralee, and his son is working and for all of them; safety is paramount. In their new Kerry home they are safe and looking forward to the future.