When Sakina Ganji (25) fled Afghanistan one year ago, she had “totally lost all confidence” in herself. Knowing very little about Ireland, and having never left her family before, she felt she was “facing an uncertain future”.
Ganji was one of 20 women who were granted refugee visas to come to Ireland after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021. After a lobbying campaign by Galway native Anne McNamara and Dublin-based solicitor Andrea Martin, the women, who were all participants of the Ascend Athletics leadership skills programme in Afghanistan, arrived in Ireland in October 2021.
Ten of those who arrived were resettled in Galway, and 10 went to Wicklow, where they were initially housed by Derrybawn Mountain Ecolabs in Glendalough before moving to a building owned by the Dominican Sisters for several months.
In February 2022, Ganji moved to Dublin to live with a host family and “build a new life”.
When the Government allows refugees to come to Ireland we should have equal rights, there should not be differences in how we are treated
“It was a very tough year for us – the toughest I’ve ever had. But life is going on and we are trying to do our best. When I came to Dublin, I took English classes for months in the afternoon and evening. I got a job, and I applied for college in Ballsbridge College of Further Education,” Ganji explains.
For the past six weeks, she has been studying business and English as a foreign language.
“I really like the college. When I left Afghanistan, I left my education. I was always worried and telling myself ‘I can’t do anything now’. Since I started college it’s helped me to become more optimistic. I believe in myself now and I’m hopeful for the future,” she says.
But Dublin’s worsening housing crisis, and what she and her friends describe as a “two-tier system” for refugees, cast a shadow over her return to education.
“For now I’m living with a host family, but the contract will finish in February. I’m worried because housing is a big problem in Ireland, especially in Dublin. It’s very hard to find a house. My course is in Dublin five days a week, so I would like to stay here,” she says.
There has been a drop-off in offers since thousands of Ukrainian refugees began arriving in the State following the Russian invasion earlier this year.
“We are happy to be rescued and to be safe, and the same for Ukrainians, but when we hear about countries like Ireland we are told there is equality and there is no difference between how people are treated. But we can see that’s not true. It’s sad that we are seen as less than Ukrainians,” Ganji says.
Her friend Sadaf (22), who came to Ireland with the same group of women from Ascend Athletics, studies criminology at Ballsbridge college, while living with a host family in Killiney.
“It’s difficult moving so much. You don’t have a base to keep your things, you have to throw things out every time you change places,” Sadaf says.
“All this time, we are worrying about our families, who cannot come to join us. We want them to be safe too, and we feel really alone without them. It seems like refugees are divided into levels here. Ukrainians are first. Afghans are below them, and anyone from African countries is below even more.”
Host families “only want to take Ukrainians”, partly due to the financial incentive in place, they say.
Currently, host families are paid €400 a month to house Ukrainians, but a severe lack of accommodation nationwide has prompted the Government to announce it will double the payment to €800.
I think Irish people maybe don’t realise how dangerous Afghanistan is right now. It’s treacherous
“Hosts are not paid any money to host refugees of any other nationality. It’s unfair. When the Government allows refugees to come to Ireland we should have equal rights, there should not be differences in how we are treated,” Sadaf says.
An organisation called Friends of Ascend, chaired by Andrea Martin, was set up shortly after the women came to Ireland, and those involved are hopeful of being granted charitable status by the Charities Regulator in the coming months.
Julie Gleeson, who helps Friends of Ascend, said there are “a lot of good people out there who still want to help” who are coming to the organisation with offers, but there are “definitely less now”.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of timing and location as well. There might be a lovely host family but they’re really far away, and there are thousands of Ukrainians to help too, so that has impacted us.”
However, there has been a “noticeable shift” in people’s mindset in recent months, partly due to the cost-of-living crisis, Gleeson says. “Before, people only ever wanted to live alone, but now there’s more of an openness to sharing, and the cost-of-living crisis means big houses suddenly aren’t economical to run any more either. So when one door closes, another opens, we hope.
“I think Irish people maybe don’t realise how dangerous Afghanistan is right now. It’s treacherous. That can be easy to forget when there is so much else going on in the world, but these people need our help and support.”
Goodwill is available in many other ways, according to Ger Hynes, who also supports the women through Friends of Ascend.
A number of language schools were “really generous” and gave the women free English lessons throughout the summer, which “made a huge difference”, he says.
For the younger members of the group, getting to grips with the education system in a new country has been difficult.
“When you go to a new school, the students there already have their own groups of friends, and they don’t like someone new to join, or someone who speaks a different language to them,” Neda (19) says.
Neda initially joined a local school in Wicklow, starting out in transition year to focus on improving her English language skills before progressing to studying for the Leaving Certificate, but she often felt “left out”.
“It was really hard. But I changed my school and now I’m in a Youthreach school instead. It’s better there for me because most of the students were also new when I came, so we are trying to be friends with each other,” she says. While Neda’s English has come a long way and she is beginning to develop friendships with other teenagers, in the back of her mind there is always a “worry” about accommodation.
It is “the dream of all the girls to be able to bring their families, especially their sisters and mothers, to a new life in Ireland where they can work and become educated”, says Andrea Martin. But the focus of the group for now is on securing charitable status from the Charities Regulator, to allow them to fundraise for the women’s education and initial rent and deposits as they move into independent accommodation.
While awaiting charity status, the group is seeking lodgings or a rented house where several of the young women could live together. They are also searching “urgently” for a suitable host home for their youngest group member, who is in secondary school in south County Dublin.