M6 crash: ‘We are leaving Carlow and will arrive in Galway about 8.30’

Karzan Sabah Ahmed, Shahen and Lina died on way back from viewing home for new job

So small, and so far from family, is Galway’s Kurdish community that they let each other know when they are leaving the city, where they are going and when they’ll be back.

The last text Karzan Sabah Ahmed (36) sent into the community’s WhatsApp group, at 5.20 pm on Thursday, August 19th, came at the end of a day-trip to Carlow. He and his wife, Shahen Qasm (31), and their daughter Lina (eight months) had just viewed a potential new home to rent.

The young family, originally from the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq, was killed instantly, at about 7.40pm, when their car was in a head-on collision with another, driven by Jonasz Lach (42), a Polish native, on the M6 near Ballinasloe.

Jonasz, who lived in nearby Portumna with his wife and two young children, entered the motorway in the wrong direction – driving east at about 120km per hour into westbound traffic. He is reported to have had serious mental health issues. At his home, in the Fisherman's Wharf area – a development of 18 well-kept family homes around a neat green – his devastated partner did not want to talk about her family's loss.


Though Shahen had been reluctant to move to Carlow – "she liked Galway" says Rosa Katkani, who met her at an English class four years ago – she "knew it was for Karzan's work so she knew she would go".

Karzan, a gifted and much-loved PhD student at NUI Galway, submitted his thesis to the department of microbiology last month and was due to "defend" it in an oral presentation – known as a "viva" – next month.

Post-doctoral job

His PhD not even yet awarded, he had been snapped up for a post-doctoral research role with Teagasc in Carlow. This had been the third trip to Carlow to view a potential rental.

“Fingers crossed,” he told friends about the house-viewing. “They’ll let us know tomorrow.” He told his closest friend, Berun Nasir Abdulla, he would call him when they got back to Galway.

“He said: ‘We are leaving Carlow and will arrive in Galway say about 8.30. I will ring you when I arrive’,” recalls Berun.

“It was about nine. I was cooking and my wife said: ‘Have they called yet?’ I said ‘No.’ At 10 o’clock I said, ‘Something is not right.’ I called them. No answer. I call them again. No answer. I tried Shahen and her phone was not ringing. It came 10.30 so I called to their house.”

The family lived in a ground-floor studio flat, part of a subdivided house in the Riverside estate off the Tuam Road – since coming to Ireland in 2017.

“I called to the house and the car was missing. I think, ‘Let’s be positive.’ We were worried but we did not want to intrude on their privacy. We had to wait.

“I call his phone again in the morning and this time his phone was not ringing. So we went again to the house. Still no car. Then I knock on the window. No answer. I knock on the neighbour’s door and a girl came out, told me, ‘The guards were here last night and they are looking for anyone who comes forward to go to Mill Street Garda station.’”

A neighbour in the house, who knew the young couple for over three years, describing them as “just so, so nice”, told The Irish Times that gardaí had called about midnight that Thursday.

Bodies identified

“They were looking to see because their car was registered here. They were here for about an hour trying to find details, trying to identify them. We knew they had friends here but we didn’t know how to contact them. So the next morning, when their friend came over knocking on the door, we told them to go to Mill Street.”

Berun recalls: “So I went to the Garda and they told me the news – there has been a collision on M6 and four deceased. He told me to go to Ballinasloe.” He went, with another friend, Rashfan Shoulbakey, and in Portiuncula hospital they identified the bodies of their friends.

Originally from Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, Karzan and Shahen married in 2013. He had studied agriculture at Salahaddin University in Erbil and completed a masters in entomology in Plymouth.

Shahen who, friends say had lost her mother when she was just two, studied engineering at university in Erbil and planned to study pharmacy when Lina was older.

They moved to Ireland in 2017, on his student visa, living modestly with the help of family in Kurdistan. Neither had permission to work, though Karzan had permission at the time of their deaths.

They quickly became friends with Rosa Katkani and her husband Rashfan. At NUI Galway, Karzan met Berun and the close-knit group spent many hours together, over coffees, going on day trips and cooking food from home like dolmas (stuffed vine leaves) and kubba (fried patties).

Karzan and Shahen had been told they could not have children. “Then a miracle happened and Shahen got pregnant,” smiles Rosa. “They waited six years for her. They were so proud of her. But unfortunately she only got to live for eight months.”

Joyful family

All who speak of them describe a constantly smiling, endlessly helpful, kind, modest, determined and joyful family who embraced life. They planned a trip home in October – their first in three years – but planned a future in Ireland.

At a moving memorial event in evening sunshine at the quadrangle in NUI Galway on Thursday, his PhD supervisor, Prof Michael Gormally, said Karzan had been "an amazing role model" for him with his humble, generous and optimistic approach to life.

Before Karzan had come to the department of microbiology, he said his team had been working for several years on an insect species but had always struggled to find the insect in large numbers.

“Karzan had arrived in late June. And though he came from a country with markedly different landscapes and habitats, by July he had already found sites where this insect could be found in abundance. I well remember the day he came into my office quietly telling me what he had found. Of course I leapt from my seat and I jumped for joy, while Karzan just looked at me with a bemused expression on his face as if to say, ‘No big deal.’”

Karzan went on to investigate the biology of the insect that year and “not long after had a paper accepted for publication in an international journal”. Karzan “always brought other people along with him in his joy and excitement in scientific discovery”.

In his thesis acknowledgments, Karzan writes: “I must express my deepest gratitude to my wife Shahen who has been extremely supportive to me throughout this entire process and who has made countless sacrifices to help me get to this point.

“I was continually amazed by her willingness to work as volunteer with me during my lab work and by her patience with all the ups and downs of my research.”

The service was live-streamed for family, almost 6,000km away in Erbil, to attend virtually. Following remarks by Karzan's colleagues, prayer was led by Imam Khalid Salabi of the Galway Islamic Cultural Centre.

Berun Nasir Abdulla spoke in both English and Kurdish about his friend. On behalf of the families, he thanked the ambulance service, fire-fighters, the gardaí, staff at Portiuncula hospital and all who contributed over €100,000 to a GoFundMe campaign to repatriate the three bodies to their families in Kurdistan.

Karzan will be awarded his Phd posthumously, NUI Galway has confirmed.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times