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‘I kept thinking, What will my son’s future be like? The war was approaching’

New to the Parish: Sufyan ElGahmi arrived from Libya in 2019

Sufyan ElGahmi with his wife, Enas, and their children, three-year-old Sanad and four-month-old Samer. Photograph: Alan Betson

When Sufyan ElGahmi and his wife, Enas, landed at Dublin Airport on a cold Sunday afternoon in late November 2019, they felt anxious. Standing in the queue for immigration, ElGahmi could sense the impatience of the long line of people behind his family, waiting to pass through border control. When he finally reached the top of the queue, ElGahmi took a deep breath and handed over his family’s passports.

“I will never forget the face of that officer. It was so friendly. He showed us kindness by turning off the light in his office and asking the people behind us to join another line.”

As a Libyan person it’s not easy to leave your country. It’s seen as shameful to leave. People prefer to die. But I took the decision in 2019 because I had a child

ElGahmi recalls how the officer respectfully asked him a number of questions about their asylum claim before leading the family to a room where they were offered water and food. Ten minutes later an official from the International Protection Office, part of the immigration service, arrived to bring the family to their accommodation.

ElGahmi briefly felt concerned when asked to give fingerprints. “In Libya, giving fingerprints means you’re a criminal. I told him, ‘I just want justice and freedom. Why do I have to give finger prints?’ But he told me it was normal procedure.”

Twenty months on from this encounter, ElGahmi still feels grateful to the people who greeted his family at Dublin Airport. He recently wrote to the Department of Justice to express his thanks; he told it that the officer he met was “very kind and sophisticated” and that the welcome his family encountered when they landed, after fleeing war and violence, felt like “treatment for our pains”.

The decision to leave his home was painful, he says. “As a Libyan person it’s not easy to leave your country. It’s seen as a shameful thing to leave. People prefer to die in their country rather than leave. But I took the decision in 2019 because I had a child.”

ElGahmi had worked as a navigation officer with the Libyan navy for nearly a decade before coming to Ireland. However, as the political situation in his home country became increasingly chaotic, and Libya descended further into civil war, ElGahmi worried about the safety of his wife and, subsequently, of his son Sanad, who was born in 2018.

I kept thinking, What will my son’s future be like? The situation in Libya had become so bad. Imagine being away at sea and knowing your family is not in a safe place

“I kept thinking, What will my son’s future be like? The situation in Libya had become so bad; the war was approaching their house. Imagine being away at sea and knowing your family is not in a safe place.”

After doing some research, ElGahmi decided his family would seek asylum in Ireland, a country he had heard about from Irish seamen he had met through work. After their arrival, the family spent a month in the Balseskin accommodation centre, in Finglas in Dublin, before being sent to Courtown, in Co Wexford, in January 2020.

“That first day in Courtown was terrible,” he admits. “We arrived at night time, it was winter and we couldn’t see anyone on the streets. In Dublin it had been busy all the time and we’d got used to the transportation, but in that small village there was nothing.”

The following day the couple travelled to Dublin for their asylum interview at the International Protection Office. “My wife was crying and asked them to send us back to Balseskin. They refused and said Balseskin is only an emergency reception centre, you have to go back to Courtown or, if you want to stay in Dublin, you have to rent yourself. We were not working, so that wasn’t possible.”

The couple immediately started investigating English-language courses for Enas in Wexford and other activities for ElGahmi where he could meet people. Two months later the pandemic hit, and everything went online. The couple stayed in regular contact with the Wexford Local Development group, however, and got involved with the Places of Sanctuary charity, where they met Tiffy Allen, a woman ElGahmi says has offered huge support during his time in Ireland.

I was very shy before, but I broke this barrier when I spoke in front of the Wexford TDs. We shared our stories and asked them to improve the asylum process here

ElGahmi became a sanctuary ambassador, providing guidance and support to other asylum seekers in the area. He also joined a group that presented a manifesto on how to improve Ireland’s international protection system to Wexford TDs and councillors. Their recommendations included a call for the waiting time for a work permit to be reduced from nine months to six and for asylum seekers to be able to obtain driving licences. Since then the waiting time for access to work has been reduced to six months, but asylum seekers still cannot apply for driving licences.

“I was very shy before, but I broke this barrier when I spoke in front of the Wexford TDs. We shared our stories and asked them to improve the asylum process here. I don’t want to complain: I prefer to give suggestions and solutions.”

ElGahmi also set up the Wexford branch of Sanctuary Runners after reading about the charity online. The exercise and social interaction helped him through the darker and more difficult times, he says. “It’s a mix of Irish people and asylum seekers running together. It’s the best way to integrate into a community, and it’s healthy.”

After briefly working in a hotel, which closed because of Covid restrictions, ElGahmi applied for a job in Rosslare Harbour but felt unable to provide any formal identification during the interview, as his passport was with the International Protection Office. “The work permit they give us is just an A4 piece of paper. It doesn’t look like proper ID,” he says.

We’re still in shock that we have secured our refugee status. Most people wait a long time for that letter. My wife still cannot believe it

He never heard back about the harbour job; he used his free time to study for a level-four information- and communications-technology course through the Gorey Youth Needs Group. He graduated in June and got a job in content moderation with a Dublin tech company. He hopes to eventually go back to work at sea but is content to finally be back working.

Five months ago Enas gave birth to the couple’s second son, Samer, and the family are now living in Dundalk after securing refugee status in July. “To be honest we’re still in shock that we got the letter. Most people wait a long time for that letter. My wife still cannot believe it. Yesterday we got our new GNIB [Garda National Immigration Bureau] cards. It’s not a full identity card, but at least I can feel comfortable applying for jobs now.”

ElGahmi is still the leader of the Wexford Sanctuary Runners group and hopes to set up another group in Dundalk. He’s still settling into his new home in Dundalk but says his “dream has come true” of living in a safe place. “We are very lucky to be part of this society now.”