Syrian conflict: Adjusting to Irish life after escaping chaos

Prof Mohammed Alkaran and his family are among the millions who have fled Syria since fighting began four years ago

Mohammed Alkaran. “At night-time, I think of all the people we left behind. You end up in tears, thinking about them or reading the news. We pray for them all.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Mohammed Alkaran. “At night-time, I think of all the people we left behind. You end up in tears, thinking about them or reading the news. We pray for them all.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

It was a bright, blue January morning. The university was bustling with students getting ready for the first day of exams.

Mohammed Alkaran, an associate professor of finance and accounting, was putting some finishing touches to some papers in his office.

Then, out of nowhere, chaos fell out of the sky.

“It was like a scene from a movie, but worse. It was the loudest noise you could ever imagine. Everything shook.”

The explosions struck an area between the University of Aleppo’s halls of residence and the architecture faculty.

Video footage of the aftermath showed buildings carved open, smouldering vehicles and body parts strewn across the street.

The attack, just more than two years ago, killed about 80 people and injured hundreds more. For the country, it marked a brutal new phase in the civil war where students had become legitimate targets.

For Mohammed, who escaped uninjured, it was the moment he realised it was time to flee with his wife and child.

He and his family are among the millions who have fled the country or been forcibly displaced by the fighting.

About 200 Syrians, like Mohammed and his family, have sought refuge in Ireland or been accepted under a special humanitarian programme since the conflict erupted.

The UN's Refugee Agency has welcomed the Government's pledge to accept a further 200 or so Syrians over the next two years, but has called on authorities to find other avenues for admission to the country given the huge demand for resettlement.

Two years since the attack on the university, home for Mohammed and his family is a one-bedroom apartment in Dublin’s Chapelizod. Their daughter sleeps on a bed between the sofa and the kitchen.

Haunted by memories

“There is no rational standard of comparison between our lives then and now. It was a matter of life and death in Syria – we are thankful to the Irish Government for everything.”

 

But they are haunted by memories of their old lives in a city which now lies mostly in rubble and ruins. “It was a little bit of heaven,” said his wife, showing photos on a laptop computer of their home.

The rambling house, with antique furniture, had a tranquil, plant-filled terrace where they would sit out on summer evenings.

Mohammed had status, a comfortable income, was published widely as an academic and worked as a consultant to the United Nations.

The monstrous tragedy of the war like Syria’s drags whirlpools of smaller, more personal tragedies with it.

Both left behind family members – mothers, sisters and brothers – who they fear they may never see again.

Even before the fighting, they said there were numerous family members or friends who were kidnapped or simply disappeared. But they were determined to make their lives at home.

“I wanted us to stand our ground,” said Mohammed’s wife, who declined to give her name on the basis that she has family members in the region. “This was where we were from, where our family lives, where our parents’ graves are.”

But as the conflict escalated, the reasons for leaving began to mount. “The bombardment was like a lottery. Our daughter was ill with fear. At night-time, she would sleep in our bed and say, ‘If I die, please hold my hand. I don’t want to see God on my own’.

“We realised it wasn’t about us – it was about her. We couldn’t stand to see her suffering any more.”

Security reasons

In March 2013, they made for the border during a brief lull in fighting. For security reasons, they felt they couldn’t tell their wider family, except for a handful of relatives. They crossed with two bags of clothes, some identification and the one item their 10-year-old daughter was allowed to bring with her: a Disney DVD.

 

By the time they safely crossed deep into the border into Turkey, their daughter asked why there were no loud jets flying in the sky above.

When they boarded an aircraft at Istanbul, Mohammed slept for the first time in three days. His wife cried with relief.

Ireland made sense as a destination. They had been here a decade previously when Mohammed was studying in Manchester; their daughter ended up being born here in 2002.

New lives

Today, they are still adjusting to their new lives. Mohammed’s wife said whenever she hears a helicopter she freezes. Their daughter is thriving at school, after a difficult first year.

 

Mohammed hopes to find work one day as an associate professor and resume his academic career. “There is much done to help refugees. I would never underestimate that. But the policies and procedures can be improved. If for me there were . . . ways to transfer my skills so they are fully recognised, I would love to do this.”

For now, though, they count their blessings. They try to avoid the news most of the time, because it is too upsetting to watch. But reality intrudes regularly.

“At night-time, I think of all the people we left behind. You end up in tears, thinking about them or reading the news. We pray for them all.”