‘There are barriers ahead: college fees, accommodation while also facing deportation’

Three young asylum seekers following their dreams through education in Ireland

On September 6th the new provost of Trinity College Dublin, Linda Doyle, posted a video on Twitter of a security guard at the university's entrance pulling open its wooden doors for the first time in more than a year. "I know there is a way to go yet," she tweeted. "But this is a start."

Meanwhile in Galway, NUIG began running in-person tours for incoming students around its beautiful city campus. Further south, students at University College Cork were gearing up for a week of festivities and workshops as they stepped back into the college life that had been on hold for so long.

In recent weeks, students nationwide have begun the long-awaited process of packing up their desks at home and embarking on the exciting adventure of third-level education. Navigating the Covid-19 pandemic has been a long and arduous journey for many of these young people. However for some, who arrived here as asylum seekers and refugees, the pandemic was just one of the myriad challenges they faced before arriving at this point in their education journey.

‘I’ve decided to do nursing and maybe after move to pharmacy’

Ahmed Al Shahoud couldn't sleep the night before the release of this year's Leaving Cert results. Having spent less than three years in the Irish school system, he was worried he would not get the points he needed to study nursing. He was aiming for 250 points, but secretly hoped to score higher.

Al Shahoud, who is now  20, was just 10 years old when his family left their home in Idlib in Syria. "I can't remember a lot about that time, I just remember our house was bombed," he explains. "But a lot of our relatives died, I miss my uncles a lot." In 2012 they moved to Lebanon, where Al Shahoud attended school in the afternoons. "They made all the Syrians go to school after the Lebanese students, between 2pm and 6pm, and would teach us silly things that were too easy. I was wondering why should I bother staying so instead I went to work to help my dad pay the bills."

Al Shahoud found a job stocktaking medication in a pharmacy and developed a strong bond with his Lebanese co-workers. “They were really good to me and treated me like a brother. I know other people from Syria had to deal with a lot of racism in Lebanon but it was different for me. My boss in the pharmacy trusted me and I stayed working there for six years.”

In 2018, Al Shahoud and his family were selected to come to Ireland under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. They spent three months in the Abbeyfield Hotel Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre in Ballaghaderreen before moving to Birr, Co Offaly. Al Shahoud was keen to get back into education but worried the Irish school system might not accept him after missing so much of his education in Lebanon.

I was so happy and my father nearly cried. My parents were surprised, when they spoke with the principal they thought I'd only get around 200 points

“I was so happy when they told me I could continue studying here. I started fifth year at St Brendan’s Community School in Birr and stayed around six months, but then the pandemic arrived. The first few weeks were really hard, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying and I missed my friends in Lebanon. At first I just wanted to go back.”

Al Shahoud worked hard and quickly improved his English. His teachers had warned him he might find some classes difficult having missed the junior cycle. However, Al Shahoud quashed such concerns by scoring high marks in his maths tests. “My teacher was really proud of me, he always gave me motivation.”

In June this year, Al Shahoud sat the Leaving Cert, hoping to secure enough points to study nursing at Moate Business College in Co Westmeath. On September 3rd, he discovered he'd scored 313 points, more than enough for a place in the college. "I was so happy and my father nearly cried. My parents were surprised, when they spoke with the principal they thought I'd only get around 200 points. My principal also called to congratulate me. He said he couldn't explain how happy he was for me."

Keen to retain his pharmaceutical skills, Al Shahoud found a part-time job in the local Haven pharmacy in Birr when he first arrived in the town. Two years on, he has become  close with all the staff in the pharmacy, and worked there full time this summer.

Al Shahoud says he feels proud of what he has achieved so far, but plans to keep working hard as he would like to become a pharmacist one day. “When I first moved here I hoped I could study pharmacy but I learned it’s very difficult in Ireland, around 600 points. That’s why I’ve decided to do nursing. It’s a good medical area and I like caring for people. And then maybe after I can move on to pharmacy.”

Al Shahoud is concerned about the cost of third-level because he does not yet qualify for the Susi student grant scheme – he has not lived in Ireland the required three years. However, he is optimistic he will find the financial support to make it through the first year before applying for the Susi grant for September 2022.

After more than a decade of upheaval and insecurity, Al Shahoud says he finally feels optimistic about the future. “Ireland has given me a new opportunity and way of life thanks to the people who have helped my family here, my principal and my manager at the pharmacy. My father has also supported me the whole way.”

‘I could always feel that difference, you just learn to live with it’

In Co Mayo, 17-year-old Helena Cala was also very nervous in the run-up to this year's Leaving Cert results. She studied extremely hard through her Leaving year and opted to both sit her exams and request predicted grades to make sure she scored as high as possible.

“Science has always come easy to me and I had chosen Maynooth to study it,” she says. “I was scared I hadn’t done well in chemistry but I was proud of myself at the end of the day.”

Originally from Albania, Cala moved to Ireland aged 11 when her parents came here seeking asylum. After a short stint in the now-closed Hatch Hall direct provision centre, the family moved to Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, where they still live today.

Cala admits she always felt “different” in school and that some people treated her differently because she lived in the town’s direct provision centre. “I could always feel that difference, you just learn to live with it. Sometimes people make assumptions about direct provision children and the people who live here and those assumptions aren’t always true. It puts you off but you just have to get on with things.”

Like all other secondary school students, Cala began doing all her schoolwork remotely from March 2020. Unlike many others, she didn’t have the use of a computer and had to do all her assignments on her mobile phone. “At first with lockdown we were excited about time off, but then the assignments started coming in all the time. It was hard, the teachers assumed you were home all day doing nothing so they’d send you loads of work and you’d be on the phone all day.”

I don't think it should take up to six years to make a decision on someone's life

Despite all her hard work, Cala has lived with the underlying anxiety that regardless of her Leaving Cert results, there was a chance she would not be able to advance to third-level here.

Cala’s family has been facing deportation for more than two years, which means she is not eligible for any student support grants. Her parents have appealed the decision on their status here, but there is a risk the family may suddenly have to leave Ireland if their appeal is refused.

On September 3rd, Cala learned she had scored more than 400 points in her Leaving Cert, which rose to 500 when her Leaving Cert Vocational Programme marks were taken into account. She is due to begin a degree in science at Maynooth University on September 20th, but is trying to find a way to pay her fees before then.

“I’ve asked them if I can pay in monthly instalments as that will make it easier for me. Everything I’m paying so far is from my own money I’ve saved but I don’t know if I can pay for the whole thing.

“I’m excited to go to college but I’m also nervous. There’s so many barriers ahead of me with fees and accommodation while also facing deportation. It’s difficult for a 17-year-old at the end of the day. I don’t think it should take up to six years to make a decision on someone’s life. It’s frustrating not knowing what will happen to you.”

Cala hopes to become a lab technician in the future but says that will only be possible if she stays in Ireland. “There are bigger opportunities here than in Albania, more options job-wise. That’s why I’d like to stay in Ireland and go ahead with college and get a degree and graduate. Because it’s a way better country than Albania in my opinion.

“I grew up here, my sister was born here and so is technically Irish. You get used to a place and you want to express yourself within that place. It would mean a lot if I could stay and pursue my dreams here.”

‘I dreamed of becoming a police officer. I thought I had lost my dream’

Mohammad Al Mostafa has big hopes for his future here in Ireland. The 18-year-old Leaving Cert student at Beaufort College in Navan admits he has mixed feelings about facing into his final year of secondary school – excitement at the prospect of going to college but sadness at leaving behind the teachers who have supported him since he arrived into transition year in 2019. "I'm so grateful to my teachers," he says. "I want people to know what a good life they've given me here."

When he was younger Al Mostafa loved going to school in Syria. Born in 2003, his family belongs to the Bushaban tribe and he was brought up in the city of Raqqa. However, a few years after the Syrian war broke out, his school was demolished in a bombing.

“When I woke up one morning, we heard the news that my school was destroyed,” recalls Al Mostafa. “A Russian plane bombed the school, I felt my life was ruined. Since I was a kid I dreamed of becoming a police officer. I thought to myself, I have lost my dream.”

I believe God wants me to fulfil my dream – to become an officer in a fair country where respect is shown for all the lives on Earth

Al Mostafa started working to support his family, picking watermelons from early morning until late at night. Meanwhile, the people of Raqqa were forced to witness beheadings and other killings following the Islamic State takeover of the city, he says. “The Isis ghosts came, I cannot describe them as anything but ghosts and monsters. I witnessed people having their heads and hands cut off, limbs cut off. If we did not come to see, we would have been killed directly. This is not my religion, this is not Islam. Islam is a religion of peace, these are criminals.”

Al Mostafa’s family decided to flee Raqqa and moved to the city of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, where they picked tobacco and lived under plastic sheeting. “We had to stay with our neighbour during the bad weather because he had one room made of concrete. We were surrounded by reptiles and mice. We had no toilets. To shower we had to go into the sea.”

The family then moved to Lebanon, where Al Mostafa says they were treated badly by locals. In Beirut, the family rented a small house and Al Mostafa worked in a bread-making factory seven days a week for 12 hours each day. Eventually, the family was selected by the UN to move to Ireland, and arrived here in 2019.

These memories of the hardship and violence he witnessed growing up still plague Al Mostafa’s thoughts and dreams. “I think about it a lot, you can’t forget it. That’s what real life was. It’s not a movie that you forget, it lives with you every day.”

Now he says he is determined to focus on the positives in his life and hopes to train to become a pilot or garda after school.

“When I was young, I wished to become a police officer but after I encountered criminals in reality, I wanted more hope, endurance and patience. To become an officer in my own country, I now understand I would have to be a corrupt officer and a murderer. But I believe God wants me to fulfil my dream – to become an officer in a fair country where respect is shown for all the lives on Earth.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast