Some 160 Syrians, including more than 90 children, have arrived in Ireland in the past week as part of the State’s commitment to welcome refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
The group was scheduled to come to Ireland in the early summer under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme but was unable to travel because of coronavirus restrictions. They are currently quarantining in a north Dublin hotel before they move into the Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres in Ballaghaderreen in Co Roscommon and Clonea Strand in Co Waterford. They will spend about four to five months in these centres before moving into rental accommodation around the country.
Jihad (13) described the flight to Ireland as “awesome” and says he is excited to start school as soon as possible. The teenager’s family left the Syrian capital of Damascus four years ago and they have been living in Gaza since. His memories of Syria are vague, he just remembers it as a dangerous time.
Jihad is one of the few members of the group who already speaks English. He has never attended language classes but picked it up through playing the Minecraft video game and watching YouTube videos. Jihad replies to each question with ease and enthusiasm.
Jihad Mesto (13): ‘We were told Ireland is popular for fishing and hunting and my dad and I love fishing and hunting. It’s the perfect choice for us.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
“Life in Gaza was hard, everything was so expensive. My dad worked in building and my mum worked with women in communities. I used to want to go back to Syria but now I want to stay here. We were told Ireland is popular for fishing and hunting and my dad and I love fishing and hunting. It’s the perfect choice for us.”
Nearby, Firas and Hasna are tucking into a soup and salad lunch with their three young children. The young couple left Syria in 2014 and moved to Lebanon. Life has been “complicated and difficult”, says Firas (24). He used to work as a farmer but a medical condition in his leg made it difficult to find employment in Lebanon.
“Since I had a very low income it was difficult for me to provide for my family,” he explains through a translator. “We only had the bare minimum. Up until now it feels like I’ve been living in a very deep well. Throughout my teenage years there was war, the most important thing was finding bread and being able to survive.”
Before leaving Syria, the couple, who are Kurdish, only spoke a few words of Arabic. They are confident, given their ability to learn Arabic in the past few years, that they can learn English.
“We’re very happy to live in a new culture and want to learn the language as quickly as possible,” says Hasna. “We’re happy now. We feel we have security here, that we’re protected and can really see a future now,” adds Firas. “Being in Ireland feels like winning the lottery.”
When Government representatives travelled to Beirut in early March they were scheduled to interview some 400 people with a view to bringing them here in the early summer. However, when the virus broke out, the resettlement project was put on hold . In the end, because of an inability to carry out further interviews during the pandemic, a smaller number than originally anticipated has been accepted for now, says the programme’s director Eibhlin Byrne.
“We were very conscious of how difficult the situation was for these people, particularly with the explosion in Beirut. The Government chooses refugees under vulnerability criteria, these people are very high risk and often it’s single women or young children who have been living on the streets. The longer we leave them the more dangerous it becomes.”
Ms Byrne says she would like to bring more people to Ireland through the programme but that “we’re a small country so we bring in the number we feel we can manage. It’s not just about bringing them here, it’s about supporting their integration”.
The goal is to house people around the country so that no one community is overwhelmed, she adds. “We don’t want ghettos of refugees, we want real integration.”
Ms Byrne believes the pandemic may have given the Irish public a small insight into the refugee experience by teaching them “what it’s like to be vulnerable and for the future to be unpredictable”.
The International Organisation For Migration (IOM), which chartered the flight bringing most of the new arrivals from Beirut last Thursday, carried out pre-departure medical assessments and continues to provide support during the two-week quarantine period. The group was tested for the virus before travelling to Ireland and again this week.
IOM’s Irish chief of mission Lalini Veerassamy commended the Government for supporting the scheme and cautioned against any potential public backlash over accepting refugees during a pandemic.
“These people are not bringing the disease here, Covid-19 is already pretty much everywhere and passing through local transmission. It’s always the same with every conflict, the narrative is the migrants bring the disease be it cholera or Covid. But all mitigating factors have been taken to ensure it’s safe.”
Dr Margaret Fitzgerald, HSE public health lead for vulnerable groups, says no Syrian refugee accepted under the programme is ever stopped from coming here on medical grounds and that those who tested positive for the virus before travel last week will be brought to Ireland at a later date.
Those quarantining in Dublin will be assessed and supported by nurses and doctors from the Safetynet primary care charity so that local GPs in Roscommon and Waterford are not overwhelmed, she said. Focus is also needed on longer term supports around mental health and linguistic supports, she added.