‘I can speak Irish!’ A Syrian child’s Christmas in her home from home

Serene Ibraheem (4) is taking online fame in her stride as she awaits Santa’s arrival

Serene Ibraheem (4) and her mother Raneem, from Syria, in St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, Dublin. They have been living in Ireland since 2015. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

On November 10th, 2018, Serene Ibraheem was sitting in the back seat of the family car when she heard a familiar language on the radio. The vehicle was crammed with boxes of belongings and her mother Raneem and aunt Razan were busy discussing logistics for their moving day across Dublin city. Suddenly, a four-year-old voice perked up from behind announcing “I can speak Irish”.

Surprised by the interruption, Razan couldn’t help but laugh once she realised what her young niece was saying. “No, no Sisi, you can’t speak Irish,” her aunt corrected her, chuckling with her sister at the prospect of a young Syrian child speaking the Irish national language. “Yes, yes I can,” replied the somewhat disgruntled child behind her, before breaking into a song many Irish generations will remember from their early days at school.

"Lámh lámh eile a haon, a dó, cos cos eile, a haon, a dó . . .". Serene enthusiastically recreates the moment she first sang the Irish nursery rhyme as we sip tea in her aunt's city centre apartment. The deep hum of rush hour traffic can be heard from the street below while across the river Liffey we can see the multicolour winter lights dance across the main facade of the Custom House. Serene is bent over the wooden coffee table in the centre of the room, carefully devising the Santa letter that she is preparing to write with her aunt. This will be her first Christmas outside Dublin and Serene wants to make sure her wish list reaches Lapland without delay.

Serene Ibraheem and her mother Raneem at St. Stephens Green Shopping Centre, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
A video of four-year-old Serene Ibraheem singing an Irish nursery rhyme has been has been viewed more than 450,000 times and liked more than 16,850 times on social media. Video: Razan Ibraheem

Serene was 18 months old the first time she spent Christmas in Ireland. Her mother Raneem had arrived in the country in mid-2015 after leaving their home in the city of Latakia in Syria. The pair came to Ireland to join Raneem's sister, Razan, who had moved to Limerick in 2011 for her studies. They spent the first three years living together in Razan's Dublin apartment along with their brother who also arrived in 2015 through the private-sponsorship Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme. However, with Serene getting older her mother realised they needed their own place and in November 2018, after eight long months searching around the city, they eventually found a house in Beaumont. It was on their moving day that her four-year-old daughter, who already speaks English, Arabic and basic Spanish, suddenly revealed her newly acquired linguistic skills.


“I was so excited to hear her speak in Irish because languages are so important,” says Raneem. “You become a different person in each language, I really believe that. In order for her to integrate into this society I think it’s important for her to learn Irish.”

“I believe all new Irish people should learn it,” adds Razan, who filmed a video of her niece singing which she posted to Twitter with the message “From Syria to Ireland… and only 2 months at school… my niece Serene sings in Irish… beautiful Irish song”. Within a few hours the 34-second video had gone viral with thousands of retweets across the globe. Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the UN, retweeted the short clip, writing that “if every person seeking #asylum in the US could be heard, what song would they sing? This is a beautiful tribute the determination, gratitude and talent that so many refugees & asylum-seekers bring to our receptive shores. Thank you Serene!” To date the video has been viewed more than 450,000 times and liked more than 16,850 times.

“I never expected it to have such a positive reaction, we couldn’t believe it,” exclaims Razan. “99 per cent of the comments were positive. I got messages from so many people praising her and the way that she sang in Irish.”

Serene is totally unfazed by her overnight social media fame and is far more concerned with the important task of completing her Santa letter. “I want slime,” she says without a moment’s hesitation as her aunt Razan crouches down beside her to help her write the all-important festive missive. “I also want a teddy dog and a kitten. A pink kitten, and I’ll call her Navi. The dog will be blue and his name is Charcie.” A doll named Evie is added to the list before the sheet of paper is carefully folded ahead of its delivery to the General Post Office. Asked to describe the man who will deliver these gifts, Serene provides a detailed breakdown of Santa’s “red nose, pink eyes, pink lips and pink skin”. He also has a “long beard all the way down to his neck and a big fat tummy”. In fact, he kind of just looks like “a big, fat egg,” she adds with a giggle.

Serene Ibraheem and her mother Raneem. ‘I was so excited to hear her speak in Irish.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

As has been the case for many years, the Ibraheem sisters will once again be spending Christmas in Ireland without their parents. Christmas in Syria was always a special time before the war with celebrations across the city where they lived, says Razan.

“It was important and not just for Christians; it was a really multicultural celebration across most cities but particularly where we came from.”

This year the three siblings and Serene will travel to Limerick to celebrate the holiday with Razan’s partner and his family. In the meantime, Raneem plans to bring her daughter into the city centre to see the lights on Henry Street and outside Clerys on O’Connell Street.

“There’s such a nice atmosphere and Serene is obsessed with the decorations. It’s very nice when the city centre is so busy and you just walk around with your coffee and hot chocolate.”

And how does Serene feel about her first Christmas outside Dublin? “We’re going to Limerick,” she shouts with glee. And with bedtime set for 7pm on Christmas Eve and a feast of cake, popcorn and cookies planned for the big day, there’s little doubt in Serene’s mind that it will be a very happy Christmas.