‘The job opportunity was amazing, how bad could Ireland be?’
New to the parish: Samira and Sara Kaissi arrived from Lebanon in 2017
Samira Kaissi and her daughter Sara (11): “I have no friends here and I don’t really socialise with people from work. But it still feels right and I’m seriously considering buying a house.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw
When Samira Kaissi was 18 years old her parents sent her to live in southern California. The violence in her home city of Beirut had reached dangerous levels and Kaissi’s parents were worried about their children’s safety. A few months after their eldest daughter arrived in Orange County, the rest of the family followed.
“To us war was the norm. You’d be sitting in class and hear bombs and the teacher would say ‘I think they’re 5km away, if they get closer we’re stop’. You’d be walking down the street and there would be clashes and gunfire. That was part of my childhood unfortunately.”
Unaccustomed to living in a peaceful and stable country, Kaissi initially struggled to settle into a place “where everybody’s relaxed and thinking about parties”, after leaving behind “a place where we studied by candlelight, always dodging bombs and bullets”. She studied science at university and worked in a gene therapy lab before embarking on a PhD and subsequently post-doctoral studies.
By the time Kaissi’s daughter was born in 2006, the scientist felt more American than Lebanese. “I would be the last person to move back to Lebanon. I felt like that country had defeated me, I was disconnected and didn’t want to go back.”
However, the birth of her daughter forced Kaissi to reflect on the life she wanted to build for her family. “All my happy childhood memories were of my family in Beirut; my cousins, aunts and uncles. Although that time was full of war I could remember the love of my family and I wanted to give that to her. I never wanted to go back but when you have children, family is what matters, not the career or job. My mum, sister and brother were back living in Lebanon so I moved back with absolutely no career prospects.”
A city transformed
Kaissi discovered a city transformed from the war-torn Beirut she’d left behind in the late 1980s. “It was more of a culture shock than going to the States. The war had ended and it was like a brand new country. I had no peer group and all my friends had left. I had to start from absolute scratch with my work.”
Kaissi initially found work at a local university and then was offered a position at the American University of Beirut. She and her daughter moved into an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean in the university’s enclosed campus. “Beirut is a bustling, metropolitan city. It’s completely overcrowded and there’s often no water or power. But the campus was an oasis and Sara went to school across the street. It was very easy to feel isolated when you’re living in your own bubble separate from the whole city. In Beirut, there was a major refugee crisis with the Syrian war and a sense of despair that the government couldn’t do anything.”
Kaissi knew she stood out in Lebanon as a working, single mother. “There weren’t a lot of single mothers around that were as independent as we were. I gave Sara my last name and that’s not common at all. We don’t live the way people want us to live because that’s how it’s supposed to be. We live in the way we think is right.”
While Kaissi loved working in Beirut, she felt uneasy about the death and destruction less than two hours away in Syria. “I always had it in the back of my mind – when would the conflict in Syria spoil over. I never put down roots, what I did was more making peace with my past in Lebanon.”
In 2017, a friend from the US contacted Kaissi about a job with the medical technology company Becton Dickinson in Limerick. She had been planning to relocate to Dubai but decided to interview for the Irish job as practice for future positions. In March 2017, Kaissi and her daughter travelled to Ireland.
“By the time my interview was over I looked at my manager and we both knew, I had to be here. I went back home agonising over what to do. What was I doing moving to Limerick where I knew no one? I’d never lived in a small city before, it was always LA or Beirut. The job opportunity was amazing, how bad could Ireland be? I would be moving my daughter to a small town where the air is clean, the food is clean, the water is clean. I read the crime rate and coming from Lebanon it didn’t bother me. I asked myself how many more times will I have the opportunity to make a crazy decision? So I followed my heart.”
Kaissi tried enrolling her daughter in a local school through emails but was told there were no spaces available. “I made a personal visit to Ireland and went around the schools one by one and introduced myself as a senior manager. Suddenly everyone had space. I realised I was a woman emailing from Lebanon, what if my daughter didn’t speak any English?”
‘Scared and lonely’
Kaissi says her move to Ireland in August 2017 was like “jumping into a very cold pool”. “We felt so alone. I couldn’t tell anybody in my family how scared and lonely I felt because it was my decision. Irish people were so nice in passing, they’ll always show you directions and smile. But they won’t invite you into their homes, they’re private and try not to interfere or impose.”
After seven months in the country, Kaissi feels she made the right decision by moving to Ireland. “Just in this past month we feel like we’ve made the switch from being new to settling in. My work environment is lovely and it’s not hierarchical. I can’t stress it enough that the people I work with are the least prejudiced, least racist people I have ever met. They’ve embraced me, trusted me and followed me.”
Sara has made good friends through school but meeting people is more difficult for her mother. “I have no friends here and I don’t really socialise with people from work. But it still feels right and I’m seriously considering buying a house. I don’t think I could find a better job right now. Why not set down some roots and then the rest, like friends, will come. And if it doesn’t work out, it won’t be because I didn’t try hard enough.”