From Syria to Wicklow: A desperate family, an Irish welcome
Weekend Read: After a 15-year-old girl is shot in Syria, her family flees the country. Meanwhile, in Wicklow town, an Irish community wants to do something about the European refugee crisis. This is the moving story of a long struggle to give the al-Sulaiman family a new life
On April 24th, 2018, a Syrian family of nine, including seven children, arrived in Dublin Airport. The al-Sulaimans’ reunion with the family’s eldest daughter who had travelled to Ireland nearly three years previously was the culmination of 2½ years of hard work by a group of dedicated volunteers from Wicklow town. This is their story.
Shortly before 7.30pm on November 9th, 2015, a group of 25 people gathered inside the Wicklow and District Chamber of Commerce on the outskirts of the harbour town. It was a dark, cold evening and the day’s persistent rain showed no signs of clearing.
Mick Nolan was one of the first to arrive and sat down beside his good friend Dermot Costello. A couple of weeks had already passed since Costello’s initial phone call to Nolan, when he laid out his plans for a community volunteering project.
“He asked did I remember the Special Olympics in 2003. Who could forget the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the games themselves? He told me we’d hosted Syrian athletes in Wicklow at the time and then said, ‘Listen, will you come on board because we’ve got to do something.’ If you knew Dermot you’d know you cannot say no. Following that chat there was a meeting in his kitchen and the idea for Wicklow Syria Appeal was hatched.”
Like Costello, Nolan had watched in horror the news reports that year, showing more than a million people – mostly Syrians and Iraqis – risking their lives by crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece in unstable wooden boats and dinghies.
Hundreds of thousands of these continued this odyssey on foot, embarking on the often equally hazardous journey through the Balkans and across mainland Europe. Nolan, like so many others, felt powerless watching these images of suffering. Costello, on the other hand, saw an opportunity for action.
“The main reason he felt such a passion to do something was because he had been chairperson of the Special Olympics committee in 2003 for Wicklow,” says Mary Rose Devereux who also attended the meeting in the Wicklow chamber. “There used to be this big sign on the main road which I walked down every day that said, ‘Wicklow, twinned with Syria’, but I’d forgotten. He made everyone remember that we had a connection with Syria.”
Just two months earlier, on September 6th, 2015, Pope Francis had appealed to “the parishes, the religious communities, the monasteries and sanctuaries of all Europe to take in one family of refugees”. That November evening Costello, a successful technology executive, echoed the words of the pope in calling on his local community to band together and formulate a plan.
“Dermot felt that if every community did something on a local level it could make a huge difference,” remembers Devereux. “That was his vision.”
The group kicked off its efforts in early 2016 by attempting to locate the athletes who had stayed in the town some 13 years earlier. However, with the Syrian conflict entering its sixth year, it was impossible to track down the young men and women who had taken part in the 2003 games. “That actually spurred us on to do more,” says Nolan. “If we couldn’t help them maybe we can help some of their fellow countrymen and women.”
The group then turned its focus to education. “We started supporting NGOs working in Syria, fundraising for them and creating awareness in schools,” says Devereux. “We wanted to get the children more engaged, in the hope that they would tell their parents and it would become a wider community education project.”
Unknown to the Wicklow group, in late 2015 a young Syrian family had arrived in Dublin from Lebanon under the resettlement programme sponsored by the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Majdoleen al-Sulaiman, her husband Marwan, daughter Zahraa and son Mohammed spent their first seven months in Ireland in the Hazel Hotel Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre in Monasterevin, Co Kildare.
In 2016 Majdoleen and family was moved to a house in Cork and in December of that year Majdoleen submitted an application for family reunification for her parents and siblings who were still in Lebanon.
She handed in the application, with the guidance of the Irish Immigrant Support Centre (Nasc), just weeks before the International Protection Act was implemented in Ireland. Under the new Act, only spouses and children under 18 would be eligible for family reunification. Majdoleen had made her plea to bring her loved ones to Ireland in the nick of time.
That same month Fiona Finn, chief executive of Nasc, received a call from a man who introduced himself as the chair of the Wicklow Syria Appeal. Dermot Costello had researched the Cork-based charity and knew it had nearly two decades of experience in family reunification. He also knew time was of the essence – and for more than one reason.
In 2014 Costello had been diagnosed with cancer. Despite his undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, his health was continuing to deteriorate. He was determined to realise his goal of bringing a Syrian family to Wicklow as soon as possible.
Nasc was already campaigning for a model of refugee settlement that would allow communities to privately sponsor families to come to Ireland. “The al-Sulaimans were the perfect match,” says Finn. “In Majdoleen’s case, her parents and siblings were left behind. It’s difficult to start rebuilding your life without family. You find it hard to fit in because your heart is somewhere else.”
Finn knew she would have to wait for the outcome of Majdoleen’s family reunification before confirming to Costello that the family could travel to Ireland, but she was hopeful that the Department of Justice would accept the application.
The Canada connection
What Fiona Finn did not realise was that a few hundred kilometres away, sitting in his office in Leinster House, Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton had already begun investigating a new resettlement model for Ireland.
Like Costello, Stanton recalled the success of the Special Olympics in bringing Irish people together with athletes from abroad. He had also recently learned of the Canadian model of partnering refugee families with communities.
“It offered huge potential, and the integration happened almost naturally because of it,” says Stanton. “What stayed with me was the people involved from the community actually got more out of the experience than anything else in their lives.”
More than 300,000 refugees have been resettled across Canada since its community sponsorship programme was introduced in 1979. Since November 2015, more than 40,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the country. Canada has become internationally renowned for its welcome of newcomers and promotion of integration and acceptance. But could this four-decade-old model be transported across the Atlantic?
Jennifer Bond, special adviser on the Canadian government’s Syrian Refugee Initiative, believes Ireland has the potential not only to build its own sponsorship programme but to serve as an inspiration for others. Like Stanton, she says the programme benefits not only the newcomers but also the communities who welcome them.
“The community work together and get to know their neighbours in a new way. It’s an opportunity to do something in a hands on way and lets groups problem solve at a local level.”
Some of the very first people to be sponsored under the Canadian programme almost 40 years ago are now becoming sponsors themselves, says Bond. “We see the refugees who came to Canada through sponsorship integrate faster and speak better English. There are strong community connections and you can see the long-term benefits of these relationships.”
Khaled and Ilham al-Sulaiman were forced to leave their home in the city of Homs in western Syria in June 2013. They travelled more than 100km with their children over the Lebanese border and into the district of Mish Mish, north of Beirut, where they found a small apartment in the countryside.
In late 2016, their eldest daughter, Majdoleen, sent a What’sApp message from her new home in Cork explaining that she had applied for the family to join her in Ireland. A few weeks later, Majdoleen got in touch again, this time sending a message about a place called Wicklow.
“We got in touch with the family through What’sApp and used Google translate to communicate,” remembers Finn. “We also found someone in the Wicklow community who spoke Arabic. There was already a strong relationship there before the family even arrived.”
Initially, the Wicklow group was overwhelmed at the prospect of sponsoring a family of nine. “We were like, how are we going to do this?” remembers Devereux. “But then we heard of everything they’d been through, the broad range of ages of the children and we felt you can’t say no. You don’t get to choose which family you help. This is a family that has a need now.”
The Sulaimans sent the Wicklow group photos of themselves through What’sApp. “Seeing the pictures made a real difference within the group and motivated us to go further,” says Devereux. “We could text in English and it translated to Arabic for them and back to English for us. It was a great way to just ask questions and send them photos of Wicklow. We could build that connection.”
Meanwhile, Costello had contacted local estate agent Stephen Clarke for help in finding a house for the family. A friend of Costello’s, Clarke was aware of the Syria project but was sceptical about the possibilities of finding a home for nine people. He then remembered a property he had recently inherited in Wicklow town from another auctioneer.
Shortly before Christmas 2017, Costello and Lynch came to an agreement with Sheila, the owner of the Wicklow home, who lives in Australia. “She told me that if I felt it was a good move for the property then she’d be interested in helping the family out,” says Clarke. “She was very generous and gave us the home for a period rent-free. She trusted me to go for it and then the whole thing just took off.”
Throughout the winter of 2017/18, local volunteers arrived at the house each day ready to scrub, wash, dust, paint and decorate the family’s home. The group also regularly posted updates on the Wicklow Syria Appeal Facebook page in an effort to keep the local community updated on the family’s arrival. What they did not foresee was the slow but steady trickle of offers to help that began to appear under these posts.
“None of us were qualified painters, decorators or plasterers but we did what was needed to get the house ready,” says Mary Frances Sinnott, project manager of the renovations in the home. “Then a local electrical supplier gave us all the equipment we needed free of charge, and a local plumbing supplier gave us access to plumbing equipment. One of our biggest hardware shops gave us credit to be able to walk in and out to buy paint brushes, fillers; all the things we needed for practical work in the house.
“It’s incredible how if you just go out and say what you’re looking for, people want to help. It’s amazing how many people can come forward with practical solutions.”
Mary Aldridge, a retired garda inspector, was given the role of family liaison ahead of the Sulaimans’ arrival. When first told about the project in 2016 she worried whether a Muslim Syrian family would be able to integrate into a town such as Wicklow.
“I’d worked overseas within the former Yugoslavia and I’d seen the language and cultural differences over there. But this turned into one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved in.”
Aldridge began investigating primary and secondary schools, doctors and dentists in the area. “We wanted the family to be able to make their own choices. That had been taken away from them in Lebanon so if there was a choice to make with schools, we’d give it to them.”
In October 2017, Majdoleen received confirmation that her family had been accepted for resettlement in Ireland. However, by early 2018 it was still unclear when they would arrive.
The death of Dermot Costello on January 2nd created an even greater sense of urgency within the Wicklow community to ensure the family made it to Ireland as soon as possible. They knew Costello had hoped to bring the Sulaimans to Ireland by March and wanted to make this wish a reality.
In Wicklow, where the house almost completed, news of the family’s imminent arrival spread through the town. While the majority of residents expressed intrigue and excitement at the prospect of the new arrivals, a small number of “keyboard warriors” began to emerge online, criticising the group for their efforts in welcoming the family.
“We had a little bit of pushback on social media asking why aren’t you doing this for your own?” says Nolan. “I’ve no problem if somebody has a rational argument but I have no time for anybody who’s racist or doesn’t like the idea because it’s in their backyard. Online we probably got high 90s in favour of what we were doing under our Facebook posts – and a small single percentage who didn’t like it.”
Walking around Wicklow town in late March, it seems the general consensus is people are looking forward to the arrival of the family.
Local Garda superintendent Paul Hogan says he hopes the local people’s consciousness of their own history of emigration will help them embrace the arrival of people from abroad. The son of Irish emigrants, Hogan was born in Canada and returned to Ireland with his family when he was very young.
“I can appreciate the importance of looking after people who find themselves in these situations. I know how much they will need to rely on local people to welcome them and help them out. Of course they’ll be prominent because they dress differently, but they’ll just want to get on with their lives in peace and I think they will be welcomed.”
Wayne Kelly, who runs a small fruit and vegetable shop in the town’s main street, expects most people in the town would welcome the family. However, he adds that those facing homelessness or rising rental costs could view their arrival differently.
“I know their situation is totally different, but we’re in a bit of a crisis in Ireland, so they might rub people up the wrong way.” Kelly says the family would also have to make a concentrated effort to get to know people in the town. “If they push people away they’ll be left by themselves. It’s up to them to try and fit in as best they can.”
A couple of hundred yards up the street, Al Lassari, who moved to Ireland from Morocco more than two decades ago, says life in Ireland will be a struggle for the family at first.
Unlike Kelly, he believes the onus is on the local community to make contact with the family. “Just be accepting,” says Lassari. “Irish people need to give them a chance and not focus on the media and the Islamaphobia. Not every Muslim is a terrorist. Give these people a chance because they had no choice. They didn’t want to leave – they’re forced to. It could happened to anybody.”
Geraldine Barnes, principal of St Patrick’s national school, is preparing for the arrival of Abdelhi (5), Mustafa (7), Fatima (10) and Mohammed (13). She says the Sulaiman children will be joining an already diverse student body, including a young boy from Lithuania who arrived in early 2018. Parents have already been informed of the new children.
“It’s a regular thing here in Wicklow town. People move here all the time. Children learn by watching those around them and in primary school it’s all about kindness. We know children who are safe and secure are happy and in primary school that’s the number one thing.”
Barnes says she expects the younger children will learn English quickly and within six months should have enough to converse comfortably with other students. “Teachers are very experienced now with ESL [English as a second language] and will start off teaching the children the basic words they need to know. Education is so important but we need to take it gently, step by step.”
Across the road from the school in St Patrick’s Church, Fr Donal Roche recalls the pope’s call for every parish to accept a refugee family and speaks highly of Dermot Costello’s determination to make this a reality. “There’s a huge amount of work involved. It’s not simply saying yes, they’re welcome. You have to provide a place to live, an education and all the infrastructure they need.”
Fr Roche, who spent seven years in Lucan in west Dublin where he witnessed the rapid diversification of the area, says immigration can bring positive and negative outcomes. “Nobody wants to be seen as being racist or unwelcoming, but there are people who have fears. I’d ask people not to be afraid and to try and welcome this family.
“By welcoming children into our community it educates the next generation. They won’t have those same issues with difference.”
Tuesday, April 24th, is a cold, rainy day. Majdoleen stands nervously in the arrivals area of Dublin airport staring intently at the automatic doors as they repeatedly open and close. Marwan stands nearby chatting to a few members of the Wicklow Syria Appeal, who have travelled to Dublin to welcome the family.
Zahraa and Mohammed remain oblivious to their mother’s nervous paces and play hide and seek around the hall. The latest arrival in the family, baby Omar, lies fast asleep in his buggy.
Less then three weeks before, Majdoleen learned that her family had secured their visas to come to Ireland. Now, after more than 2½ years apart, her eyes dart anxiously from the automatic doors to the large screen displaying flight information and back again. She regularly checks her watch as silent tears fall down her cheeks.
All of a sudden, cries of joy can be heard echoing around the arrivals hall, as the smiling Sulaimans emerge through the doors. Majdoleen runs towards her family, throwing her arms around her younger sisters, Batoul and Fatima. She then turns to her mother, kissing each of her hands before burying her head in her breast and sobbing with joy.
Nearby Marwan and his children greet Khalid and the rest of the family before introductions are made to the Wicklow group. The happiness of the family is reflected in the faces of nearby observers who are unexpectedly witnessing this joyous reunion. The laughter continues as the Sulaimans are led through the airport and out under the rain drenched skies of their new Irish home.
Six weeks later the atmosphere in the al-Sulaiman household on a sunny Tuesday morning is noticeably calmer. Ilham prepares tea as Khalid and his daughters flick through a photo album filled with memories of their life in Syria. Two rows of multicoloured flags are draped across the living room wall spelling out the words “Welcome to Ireland”. Upstairs, the teenage girls proudly show off their new bedroom. The boys sleep in the room next door while Hayat (20) has her own room.
Hayat is quieter than her sisters but eager to practise her English. She explains, with the help of a translator, that she was shot in her hand and on the side of her body before her family left Syria. She had been trying to protect her younger brother when the shot rang outside family’s home in Homs.
“I didn’t even realise I’d been shot. But when I tried to stand up I couldn’t move and fell to the ground. I wasn’t entirely sure where I’d been shot because there was blood everywhere. I thought I would die.”
The then 15-year-old was treated by local medics. Others in the area where they lived were not so lucky. “It was a total disgrace to humanity,” she recalls. There was no respect for any religion, there was no respect for human beings.”
Before the war broke out Hayat dreamed of becoming a doctor. Now that she finally feels safe she hopes to return to her studies. “I don’t mind becoming a nurse now because I understand I’m late coming back to my education. I also understand that I need English first to be able to communicate with others.”
Her mother, Ilham, says the family’s initial weeks in Ireland have given her hope for the future. “I lived in complete despair before, and I kept returning to God to ask him for guidance. But I have been so blessed with this house… and people’s faces and smiles – that’s given us extra reassurance.”
Like her daughter, she is eager to learn English. “It’s important to learn the language because we feel it’s essential to get to know this place and make new friends. We want to be able to thank all the people who helped us come here.”
Ilham also hopes that one day her daughter Amina, who was not eligible for family reunification because she is married, will be able to join the family in Ireland.
At 1.30pm Khalid walks the 10 minutes to the local primary school where Abdelhi, Mustafa, Fatima and Mohammed have been attending classes since early May. Holding a string of sibha prayer beads between his fingers as he walks he says he feels at peace in his new home. Before the war he ran a shop selling household utilities. He now wants to focus on learning English and driving a car again.
“During the war we were besieged, and life was difficult. Often our basic necessities like our medical aid wasn’t available. There was no school at all. The most important thing is that my children are educated here. Seeing them progress will make me feel like they’re safe and at peace.”
Like most Syrian refugees, Khalid hopes that one day he will be able to return home. “I would like to return if matters improve but I also understand that my children will have an education here and grow up here. I’d like to go back for a visit but my life will be here.”
Will it work?
Next month the Irish Government will announce the launch of Ireland’s first community sponsorship programme, and in September 2018 towns, villages and parishes will be invited to apply through a new pilot scheme to sponsor a family.
John Roycroft, programme director of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, says this trial will allow the State to test out whether the sponsorship model will work in Ireland as it has done in Canada. He also hopes to see families resettled through the scheme as early as October.
“This is about the community bringing themselves to the table. It’s about giving people who have empathy and compassion a chance to do something tangible and giving them the structure to do it. We will support this process, not by giving money directly because that’s not community sponsorship, but by injecting funds at other points to support the framework.
“A refugee in Ireland doesn’t necessarily have someone they can turn to. But with this community framework they will have friends who can help them navigate and access services. They’ll be supported and know who to pick up the phone to.”
David Stanton says he was deeply struck by the connection he witnessed between refugee families and local communities while visiting sponsorship programmes in Canada and the UK, and he hopes to see the same relationships develop in Ireland.
“The people we are bringing here are extremely vulnerable and hugely in need,” the Minister says. Because the community gets involved they’re able to access accommodation that wouldn’t be available otherwise. It’s not displacing anybody; it’s in addition to. That’s the strength of this model.
“The plan is the family will become independent fairly quickly: find jobs, go to college and school. We don’t want to make people dependent.
Mary Aldridge, who has been working with the family since their arrival and initially worried whether they could settle in Ireland, says the Wicklow community has gained a huge amount in working together to support the al-Sulaiman family. “It’s very special sitting in the house with them and watching them tease and slag each other, just like an Irish family. It’s been a really worthwhile project for us all.”
Aldridge believes the Wicklow group was particularly lucky to find a home for the family but fears other communities may struggle to overcome this barrier. “There was a lot of goodwill here, but I would say that if this was on a bigger scale the housing problem, the shortage of GPs and the waiting lists would all need to be addressed first – for Irish people, of course, but also for society in general.
After more than two years of preparation and planning, Mick Nolan feels hugely relieved that the family has arrived. However, he realises there is still a long road ahead. “When we first started, we talked about the milestones of getting people involved, finding a house, getting the family here. I always thought that would be the hard part. But it will be quite some time before the family feels part of the community in Wicklow.”
“If the Government wants to make this work for other communities they need to make life easier for refugee families when they arrive,” says Nolan, adding that tasks such as opening a bank account for the family has been particularly frustrating.
“The success of our project will be twofold: it will be the full integration of the family into our community but also enabling other communities to do what we have done. Dermot always talked about getting other communities to follow suit. That’s the next step.”