A Syrian in Ireland: ‘Aleppo is now famous for all the wrong reasons’

New to the Parish: George Labbad arrived from the Syrian city in 2006

While George Labbad  misses life in Syria, he says Ireland is now his home. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

While George Labbad misses life in Syria, he says Ireland is now his home. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

George Labbad always knew he would work in hospitality. As a child he was fascinated by hard work and dedication that went into running the family’s restaurant in central Aleppo.

The bustling business, which employed nearly 180 people including 70 chefs, was always busy preparing for a seemingly never-ending stream of celebrations.

In the morning and afternoon families would swim in the restaurant’s large outdoor pool and lounge in deck chairs soaking up the summer sunshine. Tables and chairs were later set up to serve Mediterranean dishes to the hundreds of customers with live music playing late into the night.

“Their restaurant was like a landmark in the city,” says Labbad while flicking through photos of the venue on his phone. “It could seat about 800 people and had been in the family since the late 1960s.”

Labbad’s parents dedicated their lives to the restaurant his grandfather had founded. He hoped that eventually his time would come to take over the family business.

I knew a hint of the culture but when you come to live in a place full time it’s very different

His parents were eager that their eldest son would speak fluent English and so, in 2001 when he was just a teenager, they sent Labbad to Dublin for a two-month English language course. As a Catholic family, Labbad’s parents had made contact with the Marist Brothers in Ireland through their local church.

“You came over and learned English for two months with students from all over the world. Then I went back to Syria in September until the following May, when I came back to Ireland.”

Labbad ended up spending four summers in Ireland perfecting his language skills and making friends with teens from around the world. He developed a real interest in the country and when he completed his undergraduate studies in hospitality in Aleppo, he decided to move to Ireland to study another degree in international management at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

He arrived in Ireland in late August 2006, ready to embark on his new life in Ireland. “I’d been here before so I knew a hint of the culture but when you come to live in a place full time it’s very different. You need to learn to go to the bank, the shop, buy your books and go to the library.”

Labbad also discovered very few Irish people had heard of Syria. He used to describe his home as the large country beside Lebanon or below Turkey. “No one knew about it then and it was hardly mentioned here. Then suddenly it became very famous for all the wrong reasons.”

Can you imagine working for a place for over 30 years, sacrificing everything for it and then suddenly, it’s gone

When news began to filter through of violence breaking out across Syria, Labbad had completed his studies, was working part-time in the Westin hotel in Dublin and had begun a Master’s in marketing. When his parents visited Ireland in 2010 for his graduation the plan was that Labbad would complete his studies and then return home to Aleppo to help with the restaurant.

“Everything my parents wanted in their life and worked for was in that restaurant, they put everything they had into it. And then suddenly, it was gone. Can you imagine working for a place for over 30 years, sacrificing everything for it and then suddenly, it’s gone.”

In July 2012 the conflict hit Aleppo and two months later, Labbad’s parents were forced to close the family business. “There were hotspots across the city, like frontlines where the two sides were fighting. The restaurant was on one of those frontlines. Let’s say the restaurant is in Blackrock and suddenly all of Ballsbridge closes down and you can’t get through. You’re just locked in this circle.”

Unable to rely on savings to support the whole family, Labbad’s parents opened a small coffee shop in a different part of the city with a small number of staff from the restaurant. “My dad wanted to do something, you have to keep going.”

George Labbad arrived from Syria in 2006. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
George Labbad: his famliy came to Ireland under  a special humanitaria programme. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

In 2014, Labbad read a news report about the Irish Government’s decision to introduce the Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme (Shap) through which Syrians already living in Ireland could apply for their family to join them. With the guidance of the Crosscare support agency, Labbad applied for his parents and younger brother and sister to come to Ireland.

His application was accepted and the family arrived in February 2015. Labbad had not seen his family in four and a half years. The family are now living in an apartment in Dublin close to Labbad’s home. Under the programme the family are entitled to work but are not eligible for social welfare.

Syrians in general, regardless of the way they left the country, they’d tell you they’d love to go back to the life they used to have

His sister, who already spoke good English, is working in retail in the city centre while his 21-year-old brother, who recently graduated from secondary school, is working as a chef. His parents, who spoke very little English on arrival, are still taking English classes while the three siblings support the family through their work.

Labbad knows his parents are struggling to settle into their new life in Ireland and that they dream of the day when they can return to their home in Aleppo.

“Syrians in general, regardless of the way they left the country or their opinions about the war, regardless of which side they’re on, they’d tell you they’d love to go back to the life they used to have. Back home to their street and their friends.

“Everyone usually looks to the future but I suppose now for Syrians, unfortunately they’re looking at the past. Those people have left the country but they will never really leave. They’re still linked to the place big time.”

While Labbad also misses life in Syria, he says Ireland is now his home. He now manages the operations at the front desk of the five-star Westin Hotel and dreams of one day becoming the general manager of a hotel.

“The only way to integrate into a place or to feel like you belong is through memories – through your work, your friends, the streets that you have walked in. I have all that here.

“I’m always going to stay here regardless of what happens in Syria. I’m not going to leave the contact I’ve built here. I have memories here now.”