‘I think Ireland will be a turning point in our lives for something better’
New to the Parish: Wafa Rougab and Islam Ben Adel arrived from Algeria at the start of the year
New to the Parish. Wafa Rougab(26) and Islam Ben Adel(25) two Algerian PhD students in UL. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
When Wafa Rougab and Islam Ben Adel arrived in Limerick in January 2021 the pair had spent nearly eight months waiting anxiously for the go-ahead to board a flight to Ireland. Both university graduates from Algeria, Rougab and Adel are two of a group of more than 130 Algerian students who were chosen to come to Ireland in 2020 to spend four years attending the University of Limerick while working on their PhDs.
“We were supposed to come here in May 2020, but due to Covid-19 everything was put on hold and we studied online instead,” says Adel, a 25-year-old graduate of English and theoretical linguistics. “It was very frustrating. We just had to keep waiting and following the news.
“We received the dates of departure one week before leaving and there was lots of paperwork to get done in the capital before then,” says Adel. “Getting around Algiers is noisy and difficult. It was all stressful. And I didn’t have enough time to say goodbye to my parents or spend time with my friends. Above all we were afraid of Covid and that we might come into contact with people who were infected. But when we arrived in Ireland it finally felt like we had some support and relief.”
For Adel, who comes from the province of Bordj Bou Arréridj, southeast of Algiers, it was his first time leaving Algeria. But Rougab, who grew up farther south, in the town of Laghouat, had previously lived abroad. The daughter of an engineer, Rougab spent three years as a teenager in Spain after her father was transferred to Tarragona for work. She had also visited the country a number of times for medical appointments to treat her visual impairment.
“My time in Spain shaped my personality. I remember being really shy and didn’t feel able to speak about my ideas or perspectives. But in Spain I learned the teachers were there to listen, and it really helped my confidence. Spain is a very open culture. People listen to you there.”
'We didn’t know anything about Ireland, we’d just heard of James Joyce. But no other Algerian students had come here on the scholarship programme before'
Rougab learned at an early age to listen carefully and memorise school lessons because of issues with her eyesight, a skill that stood to her through university. “I’ve had that problem since my birth, and in my primary school years I could never see the board. I learned to rely on my ears.”
After completing her master’s degree in literature and civilisation, Rougab was selected for the PhD study-abroad programme. She was initially set to go to Jordan, but then the spaces at the University of Limerick became available. “We didn’t know anything about Ireland; we’d just heard of James Joyce. But no other Algerian students had come here on the scholarship programme before.”
When the students finally stepped on Irish soil, in January of this year, the country was grappling with its third wave of the virus. Nearly 2,000 people had been hospitalised for Covid-19, and more than 200 were critically ill in ICU. Another 2,000 people tested positive for Covid-19 on the day of their arrival. The students went straight into 14 days of quarantine.
“It was a weird time to arrive,” says Rougab. “I wanted to go out and discover the city, but I wasn’t allowed go anywhere. I was still grateful to be here.”
The severity of the pandemic only added to the stress of moving country, adds Adel. “We felt like we were going to this completely new world, but when we arrived we were restricted to our apartments. I wanted to meet Irish people, but due to Covid there was little contact with others.”
Despite the pandemic restrictions, both students tried their best to interact with locals once they had completed their quarantine. They were pleasantly surprised to discover most people were very welcoming.
“I could sense the Irishness in things straight away,” says Adel. “I loved hearing the way people greet each other and express things. I found that when I asked Irish people questions they answered with a huge amount of information.”
“When you’re studying English you want to improve all the time, but because we’re living with other Algerians our contact with the language was reduced,” adds Rougab.
We all carry stereotypes, which is normal, but we should not generalise about minority groups. I’ve had no issues, but some of our group haven’t had the best experience
She admits the first few months in Ireland have sometimes felt lonely. “I have to do everything myself here. Back in Algeria I was studying, but I lived in my aunt’s house. She was like a second mum. She did everything. That is a challenge. I’m an organised person, but I didn’t have to organise my life in this way before.”
While Rougab has had an overwhelmingly positive experience as a Muslim woman in Ireland so far, some of her classmates from Algeria have been less lucky. “Some of my friends did face racism because they wear the hijab.We all carry stereotypes, which is normal, but we should not generalise about minority groups. On a personal level I’ve had no issues, but some of our group haven’t had the best experience.”
Rougab has also faced the additional challenge of getting to know a new city without the full use of her sight. “When you’re visually impaired you generally have a fear about new places, but in order to face this fear you have to jump. So straight away I went to new places to get acquainted with the area. I’m good at memorising places and have an architectural mind: I focus on the details. I’m actually the best one of my friends at mapping a place.”
The bright signposting in Limerick has been a huge help, she adds. “Here in Europe everything is well written, with a good contrast of colours for words. This is really helpful. Plus, I’m not afraid to ask for help. But I should emphasise this is not new for me. I was born with this, and I’ve never seen it as a challenge.”
Both students are excited for Ireland to open up this summer so they can really get to know the country and its people. They hope that, once they’ve completed their studies, in three years’ time, Ireland will feel like a second home.
“When you meet and understand a person you can get inside a culture and understand their perceptions,” says Rougab. “This exchange will help us to see things from a different angle.”
“I’ve missed gatherings with friends and families, but I think Ireland will be a turning point in our lives for something better,” adds Adel. “Although we’re not Irish we’ll always have that Irishness inside us now.”