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‘A refugee could be the person who saves your life’

World Refugee Day: Ismail Mohammed on his journey from growing up in the world’s biggest refugee camp to becoming an aerospace engineer in Dublin

Ismail Mohammed, a 26-year-old aerospace engineer who came to Ireland aged 12 as a Rohingya refugee. Photograph: Alan Betson

Growing up inside the world’s biggest refugee camp, Ismail Mohammed often looked to the skies, dreaming of the day when he could board one of the planes flying above the congested streets where he lived. Two decades on, he is an aerospace engineer working in Dublin.

“The camp was close to the airport so I used to see a lot of helicopters and aircrafts flying overhead. I guess that’s where the interest in planes first began.”

Located in southeastern Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar refugee camp is home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees. Often described as the most persecuted people in the world, the Rohingyas are a mostly-Muslim ethnic group and have endured decades of persecution and human rights abuses.

The child of refugees from Myanmar, Mohammed was born in the sprawling Cox’s Bazar camp. “Even though I was small I still have lots of memories from there,” says the 26-year-old, who is sitting in a busy Starbucks cafe on a break from his job. It’s a world away from the place Mohammed called home for the first decade of his life.


“I remember there were lots of people around the camp, everything was makeshift tents. You’d be living in a mud house, there was no bed or anything. I still remember trying to sleep in a really windy monsoon season and the house blew away. To this day people in the camp are living like this. The conditions are actually worse now because there’s so many more people.”

In 2009, when Mohammed was 12, his family was selected for resettlement in Ireland through the UN Refugee agency. Leaving Bangladesh on a plane, after years of watching them fly overhead, was “one of the best experiences of my life”, says Mohammed with a smile. “It was a Boeing 787, Qatar airlines I think. I just remember it was really big. I’d always thought planes were tiny.

“I was very scared of flying but I was also interested looking at all the engines and listening to the sounds. From that moment on I knew I wanted to do something in aviation.”

Mohammed was one of 64 people, made up of 13 Rohingya families, who arrived in Ireland in the spring of 2009. The group was initially sent to Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo before moving into housing in Carlow town. As programme refugees, they had the right to work and access healthcare, education and social welfare. They could apply for citizenship after three years rather than the usual five.

Mohammad was enrolled at the local Carlow secondary school. However, he could neither read nor write.

Rohingya in Carlow: ‘Irish citizenship has given me happiness’Opens in new window ]

“I was learning my ABCs in first year of secondary school. I didn’t speak any English so I remember just sitting at the back of the class, mostly doing drawings. In first year I failed everything. But somehow in second year things started to make sense and I got one of the highest results in my class, somehow.”

Mohammed credits this rapid educational improvement to the teachers who gave up their free time to give extra classes to the Rohingya students. “Some of the teachers understood my situation and wanted to help me, they put me in the right direction.”

The Carlow resettlement committee, set up to support the Rohingya families, also played an important role in helping Mohammed and his peers settle.

“They would bring you different places and let you try different activities to find out what you were interested in. All of that made us feel more comfortable.

“If you do that for someone, give that support, I guess they will start trying to learn more about the Irish culture themselves.”

While studying for his Leaving Cert, Mohammed discovered the southeast Technological University in Carlow offered an undergraduate course in aerospace engineering. He enrolled in a four-year degree that was walking distance from his family home. “I think that’s one of the reasons I made it through, I could survive financially. I didn’t have to spend lots of money for rent.”

After graduation he worked for a year with an engineering firm in Carlow and, a few months ago, secured his dream job working for a leading airline near Dublin Airport. However, finding a place to live in the capital has been near impossible, says Mohammed. “I’m driving from Carlow every day. If I don’t leave by 5.30am I’ll be stuck in traffic. I leave for home at 5.30pm and get home between 7-8pm. I’m still trying to find a place to rent, it’s very far to travel.”

Growing up in Ireland as a part of a refugee community, Mohammed has watched with dismay as anti-immigrant rhetoric and scaremongering about male asylum seekers has taken a foothold in some parts of the Irish psyche. While most people in Carlow welcomed his family, he also experienced rejection for being different.

“There’s always people who make you feel like an outsider, they used to call us Pakis but we tried not to focus on the negative side. There are more good people in Ireland than not good people.

“Of course there is always one or two bad people who come here from abroad but that doesn’t mean you should judge everyone based on that experience.”

People who seek asylum and safety in Ireland “should be treated with respect”, he says, adding that many of these people will go on to play an important role in Irish society. “Last year I had emergency surgery for my appendix and the doctor looking after me came here as a refugee. A refugee could be the person who saves your life, literally.”

The revival of Carlow’s cricket club in 2017 by the local Rohingya community now plays an important role in helping recent arrivals to integrate into the community. “We’re seeing a lot of Afghans and Syrians, especially kids, who love cricket and get involved. They actually play really well at a high competitive level but then they’re often moved on to live in a different place in Ireland and have no say in the matter.”

The Irish communities now hosting these young Afghans and Syrians, among many other nationalities, could learn from the success of Carlow’s Rohingya resettlement programme, says Mohammed.

“The support they gave us is reflected in how well we’re doing now,” he says, giving the example of his sisters who are studying pharmaceutical science and architecture. Another brother and sister are studying medicine at the University of Limerick, while a friend recently graduated with a degree in quantity surveying, he says.

Unfortunately older generations, including Mohammed’s mother, have found it more difficult to settle. “It was a very hard decision for my mum to come here. I don’t think anybody would make this choice to leave their family. No one chooses to leave their loved ones behind.”

In contrast, for Mohammed, Ireland is home. “I got citizenship after five years here, that felt very important. Most Rohingya are stateless, they don’t have passports and cannot leave. A passport gives you the freedom to visit different places.

“I went back to visit Bangladesh in 2014 but I feel more at home in Ireland. Arriving back after that trip, I had that feeling of coming back to my place where I’m most comfortable.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast