‘I was at a crossroads: I could kill people or be killed myself – or I could flee to Ireland’

New to the Parish: Abd nour Karouz arrived from Syria, via Lebanon, in 2018

‘We ended up in a beautiful country with its kind people’: Abd nour Karouz and his wife, Yassmine, with Kenan and Rayan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

‘We ended up in a beautiful country with its kind people’: Abd nour Karouz and his wife, Yassmine, with Kenan and Rayan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Abd nour Karouz married his wife, Yassmine, just a week before the couple packed all their belongings and fled Syria. Karouz pleaded with his parents to join them, but his father refused to leave his home.

“We got married in April 2013, and everything had been quiet. But then suddenly a really big war broke out in my town. There was extreme violence. I didn’t have any other choice: I had to leave.

“When I looked in my dad’s eyes I could see he was scared for me. I was insisting that my parents leave with me – all you could hear was bullets and bombardments. But my dad is from an older generation, and he is very patriotic. I remember he told me: ‘If I die I might as well die in my own country.’ That was the last time I ever saw my dad face to face.”

I had heard about Germany, Canada, America and Australia but not Ireland. I didn’t know the name and had to ask the question, Do they speak English there?

Born and brought up in a middle-class family in the city of Nawa, in southwestern Syria, Karouz was studying law at university in Damascus when the war broke out. He had wanted to study English and linguistics, and become a teacher, but his father advised that he focus on the law.

“In Syria being a solicitor is seen as a higher class than being a teacher. And with my law studies I was getting marks of distinction. I was a great student, and my father was so proud of me. We had a good life full of happiness.”

After the war broke out, and as the conflict intensified, Karouz was regularly questioned at military checkpoints. “I ended up at a crossroads: either I take the side of the military, and in that role I’d be killing people or more likely be killed myself, or I flee the country.”

Karouz had met Yassmine through his sister; the couple were engaged for three months before they got married. A week after the ceremony they travelled to Baqa’a Valley, just over the border in Lebanon. Each day Karouz would make his way to the town centre, where employers came looking for labourers. “If I was picked it was a delightful day: I’d get some money and I could go home with something in my hand, some shopping. But life was really hard in that place.”

The couple moved from town to town, trying to find stability, and in 2015 their son Kenan was born. Within a week of his birth they had to move again to find work. “Everyone was saying, ‘It’s not right: you shouldn’t move around with a newborn,’ but I had to chase a living.” After six years on the move the couple eventually bought a caravan where they could stay put for a while.

At Knock Airport a staff member jokingly asked what the weather was like above the clouds. Karouz responded in his limited English that it was very sunny. ‘We broke into hysterical laughter, and that laughing was a big relief for me. In that moment I forgot all the fear I had’

That year Karouz received a call from the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR. Like nearly all Syrians who fled to Lebanon, he registered with UNHCR and was told he and his wife would receive financial support and accommodation.

“Because we were a couple with no kids, people warned we wouldn’t get anything. And it was true: before our baby was born we got no help at all. I didn’t believe they would ever help us.”

He remembers the moment the call finally came from UNHCR. It was a Tuesday, and the person on the end of the line asked if the couple wanted to start again in a new country. Karouz said yes without a moment’s hesitation. Two interviews followed, and he was then told the Republic of Ireland had accepted the couple for resettlement.

“I had heard about Germany, Canada, America and Australia but not Ireland. I didn’t know the name and had to ask the question, Do they speak English there?”

In December 2018, a few days after Christmas, the couple and their son boarded a flight to Ireland. “Honestly, I had mixed feelings. I was delighted to be leaving Lebanon and our hardships there. But I’d prefer our happy life to be closer to my home.”

Since leaving Syria, Karouz had regularly called his parents from Lebanon. Now they were going to be so much farther away. “Like all parents, they were delighted to see their kids safe and doing better. But my mother was clearly crying about us leaving. My dad would hide his emotions.”

After a long trip which was really hard emotionally and physically, we ended up in a beautiful country with its kind people. My aim is to try to give something back to Ireland, the country which has given us a second life

The weather was dark and overcast when the family’s flight landed at Knock Airport, in Co Mayo, on December 27th. When they disembarked an airport staff member jokingly asked what the weather was like above the clouds. Karouz responded in his limited English that it was “very sunny”. “We broke into hysterical laughter, and that laughing was a big relief for me. In that moment I forgot all the fear I had.”

The family spent the next 14 months living at Abbeyfield Hotel, in Ballaghaderreen in Co Roscommon – an emergency reception and orientation centre for Syrian refugees who had arrived in Ireland through the Irish refugee protection programme. After six months in Ireland, Karouz found a job at a chicken factory. “It was great challenge for me, because it was the first time I’d really gone out and about and faced the reality of living in Ireland. My English wasn’t enough for a proper conversation: using gestures was the easiest way to communicate.”

In February 2020 the family moved to a house in Rathnew, Co Wicklow, where they were met by representatives of the Respond housing association who helped them to settle in the days and weeks that followed. Moving into a new home was “indescribable”, says Karouz. “We knew this was the end of that journey and the start of a new life.”

The pandemic has been challenging for the family, who had only just arrived in their new Wicklow home when the first lockdown was declared. But Karouz is now working as a porter at a hotel and feels that his “life is back”. The couple’s second son, Rayan, was born four months ago.

“After Kenan’s birth we weren’t in a situation to conceive any more: life was hard, and we agreed no more kids. But when we moved to Rathnew we started thinking about more children. We Syrians love having big families, and we felt stability right from when we moved in.”

“After a long trip which was really hard emotionally and physically, long years in between with the fear of the unknown, we ended up in a beautiful country with its kind people. My aim is to try to give something back to Ireland, the country which has given us a second life.”