When Ahmad Muselmani decided to leave Syria in 2015 his parents pleaded with him not to go. They knew how dangerous life was for a young man in Aleppo but worried about their son travelling alone through Turkey and into Europe.
“They had heard about the suffering of refugees and what they faced on their journey. But then again, I was in danger at home. I would be stopped on the streets at checkpoints by soldiers on the way to university or work; they were like the mafia. I was getting less money for my work. There was no future. That’s why I decided to leave.”
Little did Muselmani know when he left his home in 2015 that he would not see his family for another five years.
Born and brought up in Aleppo, Muselmani enjoyed a happy childhood before the war broke out. He was a teenager when anti-Assad protests began to spread around the country. “I used to watch the news all the time, I was interested in politics and I knew how corrupt the regime was. We hoped the protests would give Syrian people the courage to seek freedom.”
The situation kept getting worse and we had to move out of neighbourhood. Before then I was like anybody, I used to have goals and dreams
However, when the violence broke out, exactly 10 years ago this month, life became increasingly dangerous for Muselmani and his family. He recalls one incident when his family was eating a meal late at night in his aunt’s apartment during Ramadan and a bomb suddenly dropped on the street below. “The situation kept getting worse and we had to move out of neighbourhood. Before then I was like anybody, I used to have goals and dreams.”
Fearing for their teenage son’s safety, Muselmani’s parents sent him to stay with an uncle in the northwest port city of Latakia. However, he was unable to find work and felt uncomfortable about the pro-Assad politics of the area. He returned to Aleppo and secured a job in a bus station selling tickets.
However, the regular questioning at police checkpoints when walking to and from work made Muselmani deeply uneasy and eventually he decided to leave. Aged 19, he travelled with his cousin to Istanbul, where he found work on the black market. “I was working 14-16 hours per day for bad money. I wanted to finish my education so I decided I had to move on.”
Crossing the Aegean Sea
In early 2016 he arranged with a smuggler in the coastal city of Izmir to take a boat across the Aegean Sea to Greece.
“It was a very stressful time. We kept being told we’re leaving today but then it didn’t happen. When you arrive to get the boat there are around 500-600 people waiting. Each boat has about 45 people. Thankfully I wasn’t caught by police attempting to leave and the weather wasn’t bad when we were crossing.
The situation was horrible. I'd made a mistake going there. There wasn't enough food or tents, it was heavily raining and there was mud everywhere
“I helped push the boat out and we went to a Greek military island, it took around an hour. I remember there was a Kurdish guy sitting beside me with his kids, he was very scared.”
Upon arrival on Greek soil, Muselmani was transported to a camp on the island of Leros and from there made his way to Athens. Having decided to join another cousin in Germany, he travelled north but was shocked to discover thousands of migrants stuck at the border with Macedonia, unable to cross into the country.
“The situation was horrible. I’d made a mistake going there. There wasn’t enough food or tents, it was heavily raining and there was mud everywhere.” Muselmani spent two weeks sleeping outdoors before finding a tent to stay in. During that time he was hit by a rubber bullet after Macedonian police fired at migrants trying to cross the border. He also developed an eye infection from the tear gas the authorities used.
Exhausted, he went to find a United Nations representative and registered for its relocation programme. He was sent to a camp in Thessaloniki and five months later, following an appointment with a UN official, he was offered the chance to go to Ireland. In December 2016, Muselmani arrived in Dublin and was brought to Mosney direct provision centre in Co Meath, where he spent nine months.
“It felt like I was starting my life again. But I got bored of doing nothing in Mosney, I wanted to get out and meet people, integrate and speak the language.”
Pledge a bed
Muselmani was put in touch with the Irish Red Cross and in 2017 he moved into the home of an Irish couple in Rathgar through the charity's pledge a bed campaign. "Martin and Róisín helped me take my first steps in life here. They were interested in my background and my culture and we'd eat dinner together and talk about my life. They helped me start a course in Rathmines and get a job. They were really open people."
Muselmani had planned to apply for his family to join him upon arrival in Ireland but was disappointed to discover he did not qualify for reunification as he was aged over 18. In 2018 he applied for the Government's Humanitarian Admission Programme with support from the Red Cross but was rejected because he did not have accommodation for his family. The following year he successfully reapplied after the charity found a vacant property for his family near Baltinglass in Co Wicklow. In December 2020, his parents and two sisters arrived into Dublin Airport.
“My parents were the last ones to get off the plane and had to go through some procedures. I was so nervous when they were late coming out. But eventually I saw my dad, he was so tired. It was such a big day for me. That was my purpose, to bring them here. I want my younger sisters to have a new life.”
Muselmani had started a course in computer science at Dublin City University last year but put his studies on hold when his family arrived. He now hopes to transfer to the Institute of Technology Carlow to study computer programming and move from the apartment where he lives in Dublin to be closer to his family. “It’s a totally new start for them: they’ve come straight from the suffering in Aleppo to a very peaceful place here in Wicklow.
“I still get depressed thinking about what happened to us and the delay in my education all because of the war. But thank God for Martin, Róisín and my Irish and Syrian friends and the Red Cross. I could have never got here without their support.”