Before moving to Ireland, Nasouh Hossari had no interest in art. His life in Damascus was taken up with work and, later, the stress and anxiety of living through Syria's civil war. It was only when he relocated to Dublin that he decided to pick up a paintbrush for the first time.
He was attending the open day at Ballybough Commmunity Centre, where he took English-language classes, when he was introduced to an artist, Anne Walsh. "I don't know why I asked her to teach me, maybe I was joking. But she said yes and came to my house. She brought everything – the canvas, the colours, brushes and many boxes."
After three classes Hossari started teaching himself techniques from a book Walsh gave him. “She encouraged me a lot and I started to like it. I forget everything when I paint; it has become very important for my life.”
When his son moved to Ireland in 2009 to study, Hossari never imagined he and his wife would make the same journey to Europe a few years later. After the Syrian civil war broke out, Hossari's wife, Falak, continued to work as a paediatrician. "She worked in a children and women's centre in the city and still had to go to and from work every day. There weren't many people injured from the war where she worked; the danger was getting to work safely and getting home again at the end of the day."
Hossari recalls how the couple’s son regularly called from Ireland, worried about their safety. “He wanted to find out what was happening with us and thought there was a chance we might not answer the phone. He called us a lot. He was worried. And we were worried too.”
In 2014 Hossari’s son suggested they apply for a new sponsorship programme for the families of Syrian nationals living in Ireland.
The Government had set up the Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme, a once-off private sponsorship scheme, in March 2014, in response to the Syrian crisis.
Under the scheme, Syrians legally resident in Ireland, or Irish citizens of Syrian birth, could apply for up to four of their most vulnerable family members to be resettled in Ireland. In order to qualify for the programme, the sponsor had to prove they could financially support their family members in Ireland.
Reluctant to leave
Hossari and his wife were reluctant to leave Damascus at first. They had visited their son two times in Dublin and Cork but never imagined moving to western Europe themselves. Eventually their son convinced them to “give Ireland a try”.
“He told us we should come over and see how things are and if we didn’t like it we could always go back. It was a difficult decision to make but for safety reasons we had to leave.”
They arrived in Dublin in May 2015, and moved in with their son. “For nine months I couldn’t speak to anyone,” says Hossari. “I had no English and felt so lonely. I had lost my connection with my friends and family. It was not a good time.”
After nine months in the city, Hossari started attending English-language classes in Warrenmount Community Education Centre in Dublin 8. When the couple moved to Marino, he continued his English-language classes at Ballybough Community Centre. They secured a home in the area through a Syrian-Irish friend who had lived in Ireland since the 1970s.
“The landlord rented it to us for a very reasonable price, they were a very generous Irish family.”
It was in the Ballybough centre that Hossari met Peter Sheekey – a man he says transformed his life in Ireland. Sheekey, founder of the Intercultural Language Service in Dublin, which supported people like Hossari through language training, social orientation and community-based, intercultural activities.
“The centre had lots of students of many nationalities and lots of volunteers,” says Hossari. “Peter had made a course about storytelling – one person from Ireland and one student from another country would come together and speak about their culture, about everything.”
“I started studying hard and it became really important. It was like therapy for me. I was able to meet lots of people, get to know the culture in Ireland and speak about how I felt.”
Slowly but surely, Hossari became more comfortable speaking English and developed a fluency in a language he never could have imagined speaking a few years previously. His wife had learned basic English through her medical studies but Hossari spoke only Arabic and French before coming to Ireland. “In Warrenmount I learned some English words, but in Ballybough there was grammar, there were stories and conversations. I know at my age it’s difficult to learn fast, but I tried hard and was okay.”
His newfound passion for art also helped him settle into his Irish home. “Painting made me very happy. I tried to find my own style and painted portraits, landscapes and different places.”
In 2019 the Ballybough centre held an exhibition of his work, My Picture; My Story, featuring portraits of some of his classmates who had also moved to Ireland from abroad. “Every student wrote something under the portrait – a small snippet of what their life was like. That exhibition made me feel very happy and I met many people who I’m still in contact with today.”
Hossari has recently started painting some of Dublin's most recognisable landmarks, including the Ha'penny Bridge, Christchurch, the Five Lamps and the Convention Centre, and is working on a painting of the Jim Larkin statue on O'Connell Street.
He dreams of returning to Syria some day. "It's my history. I have memories under every stone in Damascus. That city is my passion."
However, he has grown to love Dublin. “The weather here is cold but the people are warm. It’s always fresh; there’s no pollution. I like the traffic system here, I feel safe when I drive the car. I like the healthcare, and it’s amazing how many volunteers there are in Ireland, more than any other place in the world. I feel grateful to be here, I’m one of the lucky ones.”
At 66, he adds that he is proud of himself and his wife. “We have integrated well and feel connected. We celebrate the holidays with Irish friends and hope to become Irish citizens some day. It’s important that I also say thank you to Anne and Peter: they changed my life completely.”