Dozens who fled Aleppo and other cities now face the contrasting challenge of integration
Syrian refugees find a home in Irish village
As Syrian Mohammad Adeeb and a friend walk down one of the half dozen streets that make up Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon, two Irish girls, in the midst of their high-school graduation party, walk past in the opposite direction. “Are ye from Syria? Ye’re gorgeous!” one exclaims.
The Syrians don’t speak English, and are left puzzled. They know the comments are directed towards them, but that is about it.
“What did she say?” Adeeb asks, guardedly. “Seriously,” he persists, “what did she say about us?” I tell him the girl was very complimentary.
When it was announced 12 months ago that 120 mostly Syrian refugees would be temporarily rehomed at a former hotel in Ballaghaderreen, a village of 1,800 people, locals were not impressed. Dozens have followed since. But it wasn’t because of any Islamophobic or xenophobic feeling. Ireland pledged to resettle up to 4,000 refugees by the end of last year, though actually took in less than half that number. This year, just 600 refugees currently living in temporary camps in Greece and Italy are due to move here.
Ballaghaderreen’s residents and recession-battered municipal council were left in the dark – the decision was made by the Irish government, hundreds of kilometres away in Dublin, without any consultation.
“People at the top [of government] decided: ‘Oh, we’ve got a lot of empty properties out west,’” says Mary Gallagher, who owns a store in the village. “But they didn’t make enough preparations on the ground level.”
Ballaghaderreen’s recent arrivals, mostly young families from Aleppo with a scattering of single young men from Deir Ez Zour, Damascus and elsewhere who have left behind their immediate families in Syria, say they are generally content – happy to be in a safe place. Yet the transition has been a challenge. Moving from Aleppo, with a pre-war population of five million people, to a village in north-west Ireland means the Syrians have access to fewer facilities – for example, Ballaghaderreen has no Middle Eastern restaurants. On top of this, attempting to organise family life from a hotel room and with no option but to cook their own food has delayed the integration process.
“The people who are a bit older, or who have families here are doing OK,” says Hussam Shammour from Midan in Damascus. “But some of the young guys have a lot of time on their hands and are away from parental influence for too long.” Many are bored, and though food and accommodation are provided for, the €19 (Dh84) they receive every week as an allowance from the state doesn’t go far in a country where a pack of cigarettes costs €12.
The indeterminate waiting period for official refugee status is proving the biggest challenge. “Until we get that, we can’t live our lives,” Shammour says. “We can’t move on.”
The empty days, however, have been partially filled by sports and activities organised by volunteers. Last spring, members of the local Pakistani community organised a series of ice-breaking football matches. Adeeb was part of an around-Ireland sailing tour that he and four other Syrian teenagers took part in last summer as part of a “therapeutic time-out” exercise organised by a local support group.
At Ballaghaderreen Community Park, a 20-minute walk from the village centre, a football training session, held for two and a half hours every Monday evening and headed by a coach from the Football Association of Ireland, infuses English-language learning with sports. Following an hour-long class, 18 players launch into a match. Occasionally, the game is stopped by the coach. “Where is your chin?” he asks. The players point it out. “And your shin?”
Alaa Hindi, a university student in Aleppo before he was forced to leave, has seen his silky skills propel him to the ranks of the local senior football team. In July, a busload of refugees travelled to Dublin to watch Roscommon take on arch-enemy and neighbouring county Mayo in a major Gaelic football match at the 73,000-capacity Croke Park stadium. The Syrians found themselves at the centre of good-natured banter and national attention at the game, because while Ballaghaderreen is located in county Roscommon, the parish plays its competitions in Mayo. Some pledged allegiance to Roscommon, others to Mayo. Nobody went home completely disappointed – the match ended in a draw.