Syrian students overcome barriers to make their marks in Ireland

Recent arrivals escaping conflict have thrived through Leaving Cert and college

More than 50,000 students will reach a major milestone in their lives next month when they sit their Leaving Cert exams.

But for young people who have been forced to flee their homes due to relentless civil war at home, even getting this far can seem like a superhuman achievement.

We spoke to three Syrian students who arrived here in recent years and, despite huge obstacles, have gone on to excel in their Leaving Cert and college exams.

"My parents always supported our education and then we lost everything . . . the only thing we can concentrate on now is our education"


Diana Shakerdi

Age: 19

Arrived in Ireland: 2014

When Diana Shakerdi began fifth year at Maynooth Post Primary School in March 2014, she never imagined that less than two years later her Leaving Cert results would rank among the top 2 per cent of in the State.

Shakerdi comes from a family of doctors and always knew she wanted to study medicine.

She was just 14 when her family left their home in Syria and moved to Egypt. However, Shakerdi's parents were unhappy with the country's education system.

“In Egypt they don’t encourage the students like they do in Ireland. If you succeed in Ireland people will praise you. In Egypt it’s not like that. We came to Ireland for a better education.”

Shakerdi’s two younger siblings were born in Ireland – while her father was working here as a doctor – and both have Irish passports which made it easier for the family to relocate here.

Soon after their arrival, Shakerdi was enrolled at the local secondary school but struggled. She decided to repeat the year.

“My English was really bad when I arrived and I couldn’t really understand anything, especially with the Irish accent. I was used to hearing the American accent from movies. I spent so many hours studying English and learning new words.

“I always felt it was so difficult for me with the English but you have to believe in yourself. It was my only choice, I had to work hard,” she says.

Shakerdi eventually felt confident enough to take the higher-level English exam. She also took biology, chemistry, French, Arabic, maths and art.

Opening her Leaving Cert results envelope in August 2016, she was astonished to discover she had scored 560 points in her exams.

“I never imagined I would get such a high result in my Leaving Cert. I was extremely happy and proud. I felt all of my work had paid off.”

Shakerdi is now studying biological and biomedical sciences at Maynooth University.

However, she is determined to achieve her goal of becoming a doctor and recently sat the Hpat examination in the hopes of getting enough points to study medicine.

“My parents always supported our education and then we lost everything. We lost our home and we can’t see our family anymore so the only thing we can concentrate on now is our education and our future.”

"It's my dream to be a pilot. When an airplane takes off it feels like a new beginning. I like new beginnings"

Abdulbaset Alazhare

Age: 18

Arrived in Ireland: 2013

After Abdulbaset Alazhare arrived in Ireland from Homs in 2013, he ended up moving between three different secondary school before settling in Hartstown Community School in Tyrrelstown.

He struggled with English, he says, but loved biology, chemistry and physics. He also took maths, applied maths and Arabic.

“Language was the biggest challenge. I had some difficulties in applied maths but English was really tough. Imagine studying Shakespearean English and all those poets. But the teachers, the students and the principal were so helpful,” he says.

Despite the disruption of moving schools, Alazhare went on to score 505 points in his Leaving Cert in the summer of 2016.

After the results came out, Alazhare was offered engineering in both Trinity and UCD.

However, the celebrations came to an abrupt halt when he discovered he was not eligible for a grant as he had lived in Ireland for less than three years.

It meant paying fees of up to €23,000 as an international student, though he says Trinity agreed to reduce it to €7,000 a year. Unable to afford the high fees, Alazhare decided to take a year off study and reapply for the grant the following year.

In the meantime, he applied and was accepted into the first stage of an aviation training programme in the UK.

“It’s always been my dream to be a pilot. When an airplane takes off it feels like a new beginning. I like new beginnings.”

While waiting to hear back about the aviation programme, Alazhare decided to sit the Hpat so he could have the option of studying medicine.

His first choice for next September is now to study medicine in Dublin or aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick.

“I’d prefer to work here in Ireland and either become a surgeon or a neurologist,” he says.

“When I came here I could barely speak English, that’s why I struggle in college a bit”

Ghaith Shaal

Age: 20

Arrived in Ireland: 2015

When you hear Ghaith Shaal speak, it’s hard to believe this young man with a strong Dublin accent only arrived in Ireland two years ago.

Even his college friends struggle to believe he only spoke basic English when he left his home in Damascus.

“I’ve been interested in English since I was a kid and always wanted to study it. When I came here I could barely speak English, that’s why I struggle in college a bit. But I’m getting there,” he says.

Shaal had just completed his final school exams in Syria when his uncle, who has lived in Ireland for more than 30 years, applied for him to come to Ireland through a humanitarian admission programme. He left behind his parents, his sister and brother.

“When I left Damascus life was really miserable. I was supposed to begin studying English literature at university in November but I was asked to go into the military. Syrian soldiers would stop and bully me at the checkpoints, trying to scare me. The checkpoints would have taken me into the army and I didn’t want to do that,” he says.

Shortly after his arrival in Dublin, Shaal began English lessons and found a job as a kitchen porter to support his studies.

After a few months he began a course in business and finance at Whitehall College in Glasnevin. He graduated with three distinctions and was offered a spot on the business and IT four-year degree at Blanchardstown IT.

He now works more than 30 hours a week as a receptionist in a hotel to cover his education costs and often studies late into the night to ensure he completes his assignments before class.

“I’m doing really well on the course so far but when it comes to writing essays or reports I find it hard.”

Shaal is always thinking about his family back in Damascus and worries for their safety. He calls his parents whenever they have enough electricity for internet. “My friends and family could die at any second. It could happen so quickly,” he says.

“My main goal now it to finish this course whatever happens. I know loads of people at college here and I’m really enjoying life here. I came to Ireland in my late teens and have sort of grown up here. I feel like I’ve changed. I can’t see myself being somewhere else now.”