‘I’ve never met my young son. To him I’m a picture on screen’

New to the Parish: Homayoon Shirzad arrived to Ireland from Afghanistan in 2016

Homayoon Shirzad, from Afghanistan, works with Eurosales in Ringsend, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Homayoon Shirzad, from Afghanistan, works with Eurosales in Ringsend, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Every time Homayoon Shirzad hears about another bombing in Afghanistan he immediately reaches for his phone to call his wife.

Whenever he sees a news report with images of bodies scattered across the pavement he thinks of his young children thousands of miles away. A recent large-scale terrorist attack – when an ambulance packed with explosives blew up in a crowded street in Kabul killing more than 100 people – was almost too much to bear.

Shirzad is desperate to rescue his loved ones from these increasingly frequent attacks on civilians by the Taliban and Islamic State groups and bring them to safety in Ireland.

“When I see them on the phone I cry, especially when my daughter and son ask, ‘When are you booking our flight’ because it’s not in my control to bring them here. They have a map on the wall and every day they check it to see where they are going. When I see the bodies of children in news reports it scares me. I don’t want to see my children like that.”

Shirzad, who comes from the Takhar province in northeast Afghanistan, claimed asylum in Ireland in November 2016. However, his connection with this country goes back nearly two decades.

Shirzad was only a teenager when his brother, who worked as a security guard at offices of Concern Worldwide, paid for his younger brother to enrol in English classes.

Grazing goats

“He was an uneducated man but when he worked at Concern he met people from different countries who spoke English. He understood that if somebody speaks English that really means something.”

Shirzad was still in school at the time and helped his mother by grazing goats in the nearby fields and collecting water for the house. He also helped in his uncle’s shop after school.

Within two months of starting his English classes, he discovered he had an aptitude for the language and his brother continued paying for the course. Shirzad’s brother then suggested he apply for a job with a French NGO working in the area.

“I went to their gate and said I wanted to work. There was a South African guy there who told me I was too young but then he heard my English and was impressed. He could see I was committed and enthusiastic.”

Shirzad was offered the job and worked with the charity for a few months before returning to school to complete his studies. In 2003, his brother contacted him again to say Concern was looking for a translator.

Shirzad applied successfully for the position and began travelling around the province helping local communities through workshops and training programmes.

He knew that if any members of the Taliban heard about his work with international NGOs his family would be in serious danger. “The Taliban hadn’t taken control of my district but I was afraid because I was studying English and my brother was working with foreigners that they would kill us. They saw English speakers as their enemies and they look at translators as spies.”

Sensitive issue

In 2004, Shirzad was promoted to regional support officer for the charity and in 2007 he began working on a Concern programme focused on women’s empowerment.

“It was a sensitive issue and we had to work with men to convince them that society would not be complete without involving women. It was challenging work but we made some really great changes and also trained local governments on women’s rights and the law for the elimination of violence against women.

“Some members of parliament criticised this law but we were able to teach local police, judges and elders about its importance.”

I went home to Afghanistan the first time because everything was grand there and I was proud of my work. But when I came for the second training I realised I couldn’t suffer anymore

In 2011, Shirzad met his wife Vacila. The couple were married soon after and in 2012 their first daughter Zeinab was born. Their son Feysal was born in 2013 and another daughter Oisha was born in 2015.

Shirzad was now working as a Concern education programme manager with girls in rural areas without access to education. However, by 2014 the instability in the area had become a real problem.

“The Taliban started threatening teachers in the villages and some of the schools where we worked came under control of terrorist groups. I started to lose hope because we couldn’t reach the schools and there were a number of times that I only just survived the journey to these villages. We were caught in the cross fire a number of times.”

Shirzad had already travelled to Ireland in 2011 for a course on humanitarian security run by Concern. However, when he returned in 2016 for a second course he made the difficult decision to stay and apply for asylum.

“I went home to Afghanistan the first time because everything was grand there and I was proud of my work. But when I came for the second training I realised I couldn’t suffer anymore. I was going through serious psychological problems. I had lost my sleep and felt very sick.”

Rental crisis

Shirzad was moved to a direct provision centre in Waterford and in June 2017 he was given refugee status. He was also told that his application for his family to join him in Ireland had been accepted. However, eight months on, Shirzad still does not know when they’ll arrive. What’s more, he was unable to leave direct provision until November 2017 because of the rental crisis.

“Wherever I went landlords and estate agents would ask me for a bank statement, previous landlord reference and a letter from my employer. But none of these things exist for a newly accepted refugee.”

He says many landlords ignored his emails because he was a recipient of the housing assistance payment and that some wouldn’t even allow him view the property. “When the government doesn’t help you find accommodation and you’re new to a country, how can you meet those minimum requirements?”

Shirzad eventually found a job in Dublin and after staying with a friend in Tallaght for a few months he found a room to rent in a house in Glasnevin.

He is counting down the seconds until his family, including his baby son Yosef who was born after he left Afghanistan, can join him in Ireland.

“I’ve never met my young son and that’s so difficult for me. He grabs the phone whenever his mother is talking to me. They tell him it’s your father and they say he smiles but for now his father is only a picture on a screen.”