‘Ireland is a nice country, and people are friendly, but the accommodation problem is huge’

New to the Parish: Shakeeba Hamdam, who is originally from Afghanistan but lived in Pakistan for most of her life, arrived in Ireland in 2021

In 2019 Shakeeba Hamdam was feeling “really optimistic” about her future. She and her family had just moved back to their home country, Afghanistan, where Shakeeba could begin a university degree and “make a better life”.

Originally from Afghanistan, Shakeeba and her family lived in Pakistan for most of her life. “I finished my school years there and I was teaching for some time when we moved back to Afghanistan. We believed our lives would be better there, and I thought that I could progress, and go to university. Nobody could have imagined what would happen two years after that,” she says.

In 2021 Shakeeba was in the first year of her bachelor’s degree in computer science, something she had dreamed about for a long time. “One morning, I finished a class and I was going to another branch of the college for my next class. When we entered the building one of the students was crying. She turned to us and said: ‘Go home, don’t stay here.’ I asked her what’s wrong, but she couldn’t get the words out. She was just crying and crying,” Shakeeba says.

“Then my brother’s wife called me and she told me what happened. Kabul fell to the Taliban. She told me to come home, it wasn’t safe. That was the last day that I attended my classes in Afghanistan”.


Shakeeba and her family are Hazaras, part of the country’s Shia minority, which is highly persecuted by the Sunni Taliban. The ethnic group faced intense persecution during Afghanistan’s previous rule by the Taliban. “We face a lot of trouble under the rule of the Taliban. They do not want us in Afghanistan,” she says.

Earlier that year Shakeeba had also become a new member of Ascend Athletics, a programme that has been developing Afghan girls’ physical fitness and providing community leadership training since 2014. “I learned a lot of skills with them, and I made friends. It was a way to grow and progress in my life,” she says.

Before Shakeeba joined the group, it had become well-known in Afghanistan after the women’s achievements were the subject of a documentary shown in Europe. The group’s prominence for its work empowering Afghan women and girls meant the women were deemed vulnerable to Taliban persecution as a result.

“Ascend told us we don’t need to worry because they burned all our documents. After that, I received a message from them telling me to be prepared with a backpack with traditional dress, documents, a bottle of water for two days and something to eat. They had a land trip planned for me to escape. My family told me – there is no chance in Afghanistan any more. So I accepted the offer,” Shakeeba says.

Twenty refugee visas were granted for the group of athletes and their dependents in Ireland in September 2021 following a lobbying campaign by Galway native Anne McNamara and Dublin-based solicitor Andrea Martin.

I keep looking for accommdation, but I can’t find anything. I send so many emails to landlords, but nobody replies to me

But the first plans for Shakeeba’s travel were cancelled, there were “too many risks” in the earliest days of the Taliban’s rule. “After some weeks I received another message asking for a picture of my passport, and a signed document saying I would agree to go to Ireland. My brother asked me what I knew about Ireland and I told him I knew nothing. But he said I should go because I would not be able to do anything in Afghanistan. The Taliban would never let me live my life as a woman, to progress, to have an education, a career.”

Eventually, a window arose to leave Afghanistan by flight to Pakistan. Shakeeba’s family took her and her teenage niece, who was also a member of Ascend, to the airport, where they waited for hours to board. “It was tough for all of us having to leave our loved ones. I had dreams in Afghanistan. I always thought that when I finished my studies I would be a software engineer, I would sit in my own office. But everything was destroyed by the Taliban.”

When the group arrived in Ireland, they were met at the airport by Andrea Martin. “She told us she was a friend of Ascend. She is a very generous, kind person. I’m speechless. I don’t have the words to describe it ... We are very thankful for her. She introduced us to another woman, Kathleen, who took us to her house in the countryside. She cooked tomato soup for us and we got some bed rest there,” Shakeeba says.

When the Government accepts refugees to come here to set up their lives, they should make sure there is space. We are not happy to leave our own countries, but we are forced to. I want to find a place to live and to be independent

It was a lot of moving around at first. The group split up and headed for wherever accommodation was available to them. Shakeeba’s group was initially housed by Derrybawn Mountain Ecolabs in Glendalough, Co Wicklow, for several weeks before moving to a building owned by the Dominican Sisters in November 2021. “We stayed with the Dominican Sisters in their convent for three months.

“Finally I went to stay with an Irish family in Rathmines – a husband and a wife, and their son who is in his 20s. They are very nice people. I have my own room, and they told me if I need anything I can ask them. They helped me with everything, whenever I had a problem. They helped me to register for college in Rathmines, where I’m studying now. It’s an access course for two years, and after that I hope to go to university.”

Shakeeba’s niece remained in Wicklow, where she lives with an Irish family, and attends secondary school. They visit each other as much as possible. “To tell the truth about Ireland, it’s a nice country, and the people are very friendly. But the problem with accommodation here is huge. I keep looking, but I can’t find anything. I send so many emails to landlords, but nobody replies to me.”

Shakeeba works part-time in a bakery to support herself throughout her studies and hopes to find a room to rent in the city. “When the Government accepts refugees to come here to set up their lives, they should make sure there is space. We are not happy to leave our own countries, our own homelands, but we are forced to. I want to find a place to live and to be independent. It’s my main difficulty here.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com or tweet @newtotheparish