A traumatised Syrian family finds sanctuary in west Belfast
The Arnous family have been offered refuge and friendship after escaping the deadly conflict
From left: Aya with her dad Feras, mother Nabeha, Fatima, Brenda Gough (family friend), Mona and Sedra at their west Belfast home. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Aya Arnous sweeps into the living room of her family’s home in west Belfast. “I was sleeping and I found this elf climbing up on my bed,” she says, holding up a smiling elf in the smart red and white uniform of a working elf at Christmas.
“I don’t know where he came from.” She pats his head fondly and perches on the sofa beside her father, Feras. Across the room, her sister Fatima snuggles up to family friend, Brenda Gough. Aya says she is “starting to be eight” and her Fatima is six. They are fluent speakers of fine Belfast English, but their earliest years were spent a long way from Ireland.
“We were just tiny small people when we got out from Syria,” says Aya. “I remember there was war and aeroplanes were coming and falling down.”
The girls, along with their older sisters, Mona (13) and Sedra (11), and their parents, Nabeha and Feras, have lived in west Belfast for almost two years. They were among the first 10 Syrian families to be offered refuge in Northern Ireland under the UK’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. Assisted by the UN High Commission for Refugees, just over 700 people who were displaced from their homes by the war in Syria have arrived in the North to date. By 2020, the full agreed complement of 2,000 will have been reached.
Half a million people are estimated to have died in the conflict, with more than six million displaced. The UK agreed in 2015 to take 20,000 refugees under its scheme over the following five years. Those eligible included people in severe need of medical assistance – Feras Arnous is seriously ill. The families can stay for five years and are allowed to work and seek benefits. There are formal and informal English classes for adults and local organisations are providing support and advice.
Aya and Fatima like Belfast.
“People always gather around us and say, ‘hello! hello! What’s your name?’”says Aya. “That’s the way we like people.” Fatima nods agreement. “My friends help me, whatever I want to do,” she says. “My favourite thing to do is to help the dinner ladies. They like me too. They said I am a good worker. Our favourite Auntie is Auntie Brenda.”
Brenda kisses her on the head. Their sisters are still out at school. Nabeha smiles as the girls chatter. They are too young to have any real idea of the extremity of the danger their family escaped when, in 2012, it became impossible to stay in the city of Homs where they had been living happily until the war started.
“When the war started, everything stopped,” says Nabeha.
Nabeha remembers running from house to house holding her baby, Fatima, in her arms, while soldiers shot at anyone they saw moving.
“It started with young boys writing on the walls, and the army taking them away to prison, and then the war got worse and worse. Not just in Homs, also in Aleppo, Damascus and other places. Homs was cut up into many pieces. There were soldiers everywhere. One day a tank parked across the door into our house and we could not get out. One day soldiers came and wrecked the house, and took all the men outside, against the wall, leaving just me inside with my girls. They took people away. We don’t know where they took them. There were bombs and planes over us. After five months we went to my family’s house and the army made a circle around the house and if anyone went out they shouted, ‘Shoot them!’,”
People helped them escape and they made their way through the city and across the border to Lebanon where they stayed among the Druse people in the mountains for a time. Life was hard and unsafe and they returned to Syria to get passports before fleeing again on foot across the desert to the Jordanian border where they waited among more than 1,000 people for several days.
“There were about 200 children crying and begging for food and water but we had none,” recalls Nabeha.
After crossing the border they lived in a refugee camp and later with members of Feras’s extended family. This period lasted about three years.
“We were not allowed to work – if my husband was working and got caught he would have been sent back to Syria. After a year we had no more money to send the girls to school. At first there was a box of food every month, but it got less and less. Then the UN came and asked us if we wanted to go to the United States. Seven months later they asked would we like to go to the UK. We said yes, any place. So then they brought us to Lebanon and then to here. We moved into this house on 12 December, 2015.”
Her mother, who was ill, had to return to Syria and was then unable to leave again. She died earlier this year.
Life has not been entirely peaceful in the small rented house in a cul de sac in the heart of Beechmount, near where the peaceline separates the Shankill and the Falls Roads. Not everyone has been welcoming. The family was in the news a few months ago when Nabeha made a public appeal for those who were attacking their home and shouting threats and racist abuse at the family to leave them in peace. The PSNI said they regarded what was happening as hate crimes. The appeal came after months of suffering in silence. Brenda, who lives a few streets away, takes up the story.
“I had become friends with Nabeha from meeting her in the street as she walked the girls to and from school,” she says. “We started talking and getting to know each other. When Nabeha told me what was happening, I was horrified, but she and Feras didn’t want to make a fuss. Also, she didn’t tell me everything. She is a proud person. But the girls told me.”
“At first it was just young men throwing small stones at the windows,” says Nabeha. “Sometimes eggs. Sometimes they would open the door into the house and shout things at us. Then one day they threw a big stone and it cracked the front window.”
That night, Nabeha was frightened and called Brenda. She said the family did not want to involve the police.
“They didn’t know how locals would react to them getting the PSNI,” says Brenda. “I contacted the People before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, and Sinn Féin also involved themselves. There was a storm of reaction, all of it supportive of the family. There is a growing Muslim community in this part of Belfast, people want them to know they are welcome.”
The trouble has been at the hands of what Brenda calls “young bucks acting the eejit” and it has largely stopped. There was, however, a so-called punishment shooting just across the road from the Arnous’s a couple of weeks ago, probably involving dissident republicans and probably related to the growing drugs problem in the area.
Nabeha was overwhelmed by the way the community rallied around the family.
“Everyone came here and said sorry and that it was a good idea to call the police. People brought chocolate and cakes. Now I know many friends. I feel safe now, and happy. Nobody will hurt us.”
She and Feras watch the news from Syria on Arabic stations on the large television in the corner of the room.
“Sometimes it makes us angry and we switch it off,” says Nabeha. “My father and brother are still there. I worry about my brother who is young, maybe the army will take him and make him fight. Sometimes I cry when I remember what we saw. We saw many people the army killed, we saw them fall down; we saw the army taking young boys from their family. I remember a mother shouting, ‘Please leave my son – he did not do anything.’ She threw herself down at their feet and they kicked her. When we remember, we feel very sore.”
The couple does not know if they will be able to return to their country. “Everything has been destroyed,” says Nabeha.
Feras is getting hospital treatment, the girls are doing well at school. Mona and Sedra are excelling not just in English, but also in Irish and Spanish. Aya and Fatima have listened quietly as their mother tells the family’s story. Asked if they have any message for readers of The Irish Times, Aya replies solemnly: “We don’t like anyone to hurt others. We need the war to stop in Syria. Everyone is travelling around Syria and they want to get out.”