Ahmad Zeidan worked as a window fitter and a government courier in Aleppo in northern Syria until a bomb damaged his family’s house and devastated their neighbourhood, forcing the family to flee past dead bodies in the street.
Eight years in Lebanese refugee camps or other temporary accommodation followed, including the two last years when they lived in a farm shed without water or electricity, until they were given sanctuary under Ireland’s Refugee Resettlement Programme.
Last April, Ahmad, his wife Jamila, and their three sons, Hussein (20), a car mechanic; Mohamad (18), a carpenter; and Ammar (12), arrived in Ireland, where they now live in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, helped by a group of local volunteers.
“Receiving them in the flat, that was a beautiful experience,” says one of the volunteers, Máire Lawless. “As they were coming up the stairs into the apartment, when they were seeing it for the first time, they were gasping, they just couldn’t believe it.”
Locals such as Lawless formed the Baltinglass Welcomes group two years ago to support a refugee family under the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth community sponsorship programme.
In the past five years, about 118 refugees in 31 families from Syria and Afghanistan who had registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have been settled by the Irish Refugee Resettlement programme, helped by local communities for up to two years.
Before being approved by the department to sponsor a refugee family, each community group such as Baltinglass has had to prepare a detailed plan showing clearly what they could do for such a family and how they would go about it.
Each group, who are not funded by the State, must have enough funds to cover medical bills, translation, household supplies and clothing, along with anything needed to help the families get work. The local help plays “a central role” in settling families in, says the department.
For its part, Baltinglass Welcomes raised money through bake sales, church collections, donations and a local school’s no-uniform day, while they divided the support duties – even down to helping families get PPS numbers – among themselves.
The biggest challenge was to raise €10,000 to cover advance rent, plus deposit: “We put in some basics and gave money for food that they could source themselves. There is a Syrian community here – there are already five other families. They helped them with where to buy their foods.”
“The first night they arrived, a local takeaway owner here is Muslim and he did some food for us. It was Ramadan and he knew that they could eat when the sun goes down, and he knew what they could eat as well,” says Lawless.
“Training is something we’ve really heavily worked on so that there’s a ready-made friendship group there for the family when they arrive,” says Colette Morris, programmes manager at Irish Red Cross Migration Services.
Everything is geared to make the families independent quickly. Two families have successfully graduated. One support group has volunteered to take on another family, while the feedback from the families themselves has been “amazing”.
“We didn’t expect to find another ‘family’ waiting for us. We are overwhelmed with the kindness of these people,” says Ahmad, “We didn’t expect all of the generosity that we received from the community here. Now we are working hard to learn English to start a life that we dreamed about.”
The small things matter, says Rory O’Neill of the Irish Refugee Council. “When a family first arrives, the group might make sure that the lights are on, that a fire is lit and maybe that there’s a smell of cooking in the house as well.”
The benefits of the programme extend beyond the family receiving help since it offers insights to locals who have never met a refugee before. “Ultimately, people recognise that people are people. When someone sits down and shares food together, that’s when the magic happens.”
“It’s about creating a welcoming home for a family who have been living in fear for a long time and in a camp for a long time. There might be grandparents left behind, and especially for females who are used to having intergenerational support, the group then becomes the de facto support group for them.”
Majo Rivas, community sponsorship manager at Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, said the refugees’ experiences today are mirrored by Ireland’s past, when the Irish “had to flee because of hunger”.
“[It offers] Irish people the opportunity to show solidarity with our fellow humans.”
Many Syrians have been displaced for a decade, without rights to education or work, but Syrian children now in Ireland are “getting their childhood back”, freed of years of fear of losing loved ones or being bombed or being kidnapped. “It’s being able to go and play,” she says.
More Syrian families interviewed by Irish officials in Beirut are due to come next year under the resettlement programme, says Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman.
Fine Gael TD David Stanton, who as Minister of State for Justice launched the Community Sponsorship programme in 2019, says he has been struck by the friendships that have formed. “The sponsors really and truly got an awful lot out of it themselves.”
Echoing Stanton’s view, Baltinglass volunteer Paula Kavanagh says: “[It has been] one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. The Zeidan family always put a smile on my face. They’re exceptional people, they put a lot of things into perspective.
“If I tell other people about them, I say we are so lucky, we’ve never had to go through anything like that. Even if we don’t feel that we do, we have so much here. We have safety and security,” says Kavanagh.
“They’re very helpful as well. They’re very kind and generous. They’ve often said, ‘We want to help you now’. They’re so ready and willing. They’ve volunteered for Tidy Towns. Ahmad volunteered in the community garden. They want to give back.”
Her children are the same age as the Zeidan’s older sons, Mohamad and Hussein. “We had a get-together and they all just played basketball, they had a common ground, and they all learned a lot from each other. So it’s great for the family as well.”
Recalling the years in Lebanon, Ahmad says: “I worked as a farm labourer without payment, just for the shed. The situation was miserable. We got support from the UN – rice and dried foods – but even this wasn’t enough to fill our stomachs.”
His wife, Jamila, says: “In the first two or three years in Lebanon, we had to move from city to city to look for a job or for a house to get settled in. Compared to Syria, Lebanon is quite expensive, and we didn’t feel welcome. We went through a lot of challenges. We weren’t able to find a solution.”
“We didn’t lose hope that eventually we would end up in a safe country or return to Syria but when this war started to last beyond six years, we knew it wasn’t going to end. We applied to the United Nations to get relocated to another country.”
Today, life is better. The older boys are determined to get trade certificates. “Learning English is such a great advantage,” Mohamad says. “I’m so glad to have the opportunity to learn it, I’d like to set up my own business as a carpenter.”
Meanwhile, the youngest in the family, Ammar, says: “Everyone is very nice. They are my friends, we’re always playing. If I’m stuck on some subject, my friend who sits beside me helps me.” His mother looks proudly on. “The teachers are very happy. He’s very much working hard here.”
Settling into Ireland, Ahmad, who has 10 siblings still in Syria, and Jamila, who has nine brothers and sisters spread between Lebanon and Syria, say they worry about their families: “In Aleppo where my family is, there is no bombing but, economically, it is on the ground, there is a fear about a new famine,” says Ahmad.