New to the Parish: Observing the Syrian war ‘is like watching your child dying’

A Syrian journalist who moved to Limerick to study could not return home when the conflict intensified. She has since made a home in Dublin with her siblings

Razan Ibraheem: “My dad is so pro-women, he’s a kind of feminist. He never tried to restrict me. I questioned everything.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Razan Ibraheem: “My dad is so pro-women, he’s a kind of feminist. He never tried to restrict me. I questioned everything.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Razan Ibraheem stopped watching news reports from Syria temporarily in the run-up to her exams. Hearing tales of the death and destruction in her home country on a daily basis was unbearable, and her studies were slipping.

“It’s like watching your child dying and you can’t do anything about it. You feel paralysed. The culture, the heritage, the history, the humanity was being destroyed in front of my eyes and I felt helpless.

“I had saved for years to come here and study. I worked in Syria and in Kuwait as an English teacher to save the money. The word ‘fail’ does not exist in my vocabulary. Pay everything and then fail? I literally studied 10-15 hours a day. But at the same time I was watching the news coming from home. I was so upset I decided to stop. I stopped because I couldn’t cope.”

The Syrian journalist’s description of how she came to Ireland is filled with passion and emotion. She was the first member of her family to study a master’s degree in Europe. She knows her family are proud of her. However, when she left Syria in 2011, she never imagined there would be no return journey at the end of her studies.

“I thought the conflict was going to end after a few months. I never thought I would stay in Ireland. I thought, I’m going to finish my master’s and go back home, because I already had a job waiting for me.”

She was born and grew up in the coastal Mediterranean city of Latakia on the Turkish border with Syria. She describes her hometown as an open city, filled with art, culture and music.

“It was a very beautiful city, with amazing weather and amazing food. It shared a lot of the qualities of Mediterranean cities. When I visited Greece recently, it felt like I was back in Latakia. The food, the culture, the lifestyle was the same.”

“Syria is like a piece of a mosaic, it has a mixture of everything: different religions, background, opinions and lifestyles. But we are all Syrians; we lived in harmony before.”

A liberal upbringing

She grew up in a liberal, secular household where her parents – both teachers – encouraged her and her younger siblings to embrace Syria’s diversity.

“My dad is so pro-women, he’s a kind of feminist,” she says, with deep pride in her voice. “From day one he never tried to restrict me. I questioned everything, criticised everything and never took things for granted. I was a real rebel and this formulated my character.”

She had her first introduction to Ireland while studying English literature at university in Latakia. “We did the literature of the English language, which included Canadian, American and a focus on Irish literature. We learned about Ireland’s amazing, brave history. They taught the world what dignity is; to stand up for your rights, to be brave and to fight for equality.”

After working for a number of years as an English teacher, she applied for a master’s in English-language teaching in Europe. In 2011 she flew to Ireland to begin her studies at the University of Limerick.

“It was a real culture shock. I was introduced to Europe through Limerick. But the people were extremely friendly and opened their doors and their hearts to me. People here are curious about you; they ask a lot of questions and are open.”

It was obvious by 2012 that she would not be able to return to Syria after completing her studies and would have to “start from scratch in Ireland”. She worked in restaurants and retail before deciding to make use of her Arabic language skills and work as a translator. In 2014 she was offered a job with a social-media company and moved to Dublin. Soon after, she began working as a journalist with Storyful, a news and social-media agency.

As she began building her new life in Ireland, she worried about her younger brother and parents in Syria. Her sister had already moved to the UK in 2010. Her brother was becoming desperate and said he was considering taking a boat across the Mediterranean. She applied for him to join her through the private-sponsorship Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme, and in February 2015 he arrived in his new home.

“It was a dream for him to start his new life, because it’s not easy living in Syria, in the middle of war and sadness.”

Her sister joined them later in 2015, and the three of them now live together in the city centre.

Last year their parents visited Ireland for more than a month. It was the first time the family had been together in more than five years.

“We were all united and it was one of the best moments in my life. They had a great time because it was their first time travelling outside Syria. But they wanted to go back, which I understand. Syria is their home and they are very connected to it. They are older people in their 60s, and it’s not easy for them to start a new life at this stage, particularly with the language barrier.”

A route for refugees

Ibraheem recognises that she and her siblings are lucky. She says governments worldwide must offer Syrian refugees a safe pathway to asylum in order to avoid the increasingly dangerous routes being taken by men, women and children fleeing their homeland.

“There are so many ways you can do this: through family reunification, student visas, humanitarian visas or scholarships. There are many ways they can arrive safety and in dignity, but they are not being given that chance.”

In March, she travelled to the United Nations in Geneva to talk about the urgent need for a global response to the refugee crisis. “I was there talking of my experience in Ireland and the volunteering work I did in Greece helping refugees. I noticed the UN were pushing countries to agree to do something. They said, ‘You can’t leave people dying in boats, there are many different avenues that you can use to bring people here instead of letting them risk their lives.’ ”

She clings to the hope that the war in Syria will end soon. “We have to hold on to the light. Syrians want to go home. They want to go back to their lives, to their businesses, their homes and their families. Everybody must take part in finding a solution.”

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish
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