Salim Yattem has never owned a passport and has been considered a refugee his entire life. Brought up in the Yarmouk camp district of Damascus, Yattem grew up surrounded by Palestinian refugees who had fled to Syria in 1948.
"They had their Syrian schools in their areas and we had special schools run for us. It was called a camp but it's like any city, it's like Limerick city. Even though I was born in Syria and grew up there I never got Syrian nationality. I grew up as a refugee and never carried a passport or travelled. Even in Syria I was a refugee."
Yattem’s life transformed when the war broke out in Syria in 2011. He and his family no longer felt safe walking around the streets of Yarmouk, fearing that a bomb could drop at any moment. He lost his aunt and her seven-year-old daughter in an attack on a local school. “I went really crazy at that time, it was like ‘what’s going on?’ I was really scared for my family. It was the worst time of my life.”
When he turned 18, after completing his final school exams, he was called up for military service in the army. "I was a student at the time and my family was very worried about me. They said we're not going to send you to fight and instead sent me to the nearest country – Lebanon. It wasn't easy to get there; my uncle brought me with his family in the car through many checkpoints where they asked where are you going. I said I was visiting my mother."
Yattem spent about a year in Lebanon alongside what is estimated to be 1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees. He then moved to Turkey before crossing the sea to Greece. He arrived in Ireland in March 2015 and applied for asylum.
“At that time I had very poor English, I could only say my name. When they asked for documents I gave them my Palestinian identity card. They welcomed me and said ‘don’t worry, we will call someone to translate for you’. And then I told them my story.”
I'd ask people what words meant, there were so many questions in my head
Yattem was initially brought to the Balseskin reception centre in Fingal before being transferred to the Glenvara direct provision centre in Cork where he spent eight months until he received his refugee status. He then began searching for a place to live and found an affordable apartment in Limerick city. Eager to return to his studies as quickly as possible, Yattem signed up to a part-time English course at the Limerick Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme.
“I was working in a restaurant at the time washing plates. In the morning I would wake up and go to school and then I’d work from 6-10pm. I don’t know how but I learned English quickly, I just picked it up and had a very good teacher. When I was at home I’d buy books and try and read anything around me. I’d ask people what words meant, there were so many questions in my head.”
Yattem moved into a full-time English course before deciding to study for and sit his Junior Cert. He passed the exam with good marks in maths and business and moved on to the Leaving Cert. "I did English, maths, physics, biology, economics and Arabic. I was very happy with the results and decided to go for a course in science at the University of Limerick (UL). I've loved science since I was a child."
Shortly after applying, Yattem discovered he would have to pay international fees to study at university and would not be eligible for the Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) grant for another year.
“I didn’t want to spend a year doing nothing so I went to the UL open day and saw I could do the mature access course in science. They explained if I did the access course it would allow me to go straight into first year of the degree. I was so happy to hear that.”
Yattem is now more than halfway through the UL access course. “I love it. When I go into the lab I never want to leave. I want to spend my whole life working in the lab. When I put on the white coat and the glasses, that’s my life. Ireland gave me the opportunity to express those skills.”
I feel Irish now, I don't feel foreign or like a stranger
In 2016, Yattem applied for family reunification for his 63-year-old mother to join him in Ireland and the pair now life together in Limerick. His siblings are scattered across Europe, living in Germany and the Netherlands.
“I’ll never forget that moment when I saw my mother in the airport after such a long time. I can’t explain it exactly but it was a very good feeling. She tried going to school to study but she can’t understand people and after she arrived she had a heart attack. I always help her here and take her to appointments.”
Asked if he would consider returning to Syria in the future, Yattem says his life is in Ireland now. “If I went back now they would make me join the army because everyone has to do their military service. I feel more Palestinian than any other country. And now I have an Irish travel document so I can go abroad. It’s a good feeling to be able to go to the airport and go on holidays.”
Yattem hopes to complete a degree in science and then find work in cancer research. He feels comfortable in Ireland and looks forward to applying for citizenship one day. “I feel Irish now, I don’t feel foreign or like a stranger.”
He says the challenges and hardships he’s endured since the Syrian conflict broke out have taught him to never give up or stop trying. “I believe everything in life happens according to our time, our clock. Don’t let anyone rush you with your timeline and never say it’s impossible. Everything is possible with belief and hard work.”
New to the Parish: Salim Yattem arrived from Syria in 2015