A Syrian living in Clonakilty, and two volunteers, tell Louise McCarthy of their fears for the war-torn state

A WEST Cork family are extremely concerned about the safety of their relatives trapped in the Syrian civil war.

Clonakilty resident, Mohammad Alsaad, has been living in the town since 2002 and is married to local woman, Margaret McCarthy. They have two young children.

Born and raised in Syria, the ongoing killing of innocent people is heartbreaking for him. His parents and 24-year-old brother managed to escape in February last year. They now live in Clonakilty, but his sisters, brothers, and 14 nieces and nephews remain in Damascus.

Alsaad said: “They are scared of the camps, they will stay in Syria rather than go through the camps.” He funded his parents’ and brother’s departure from war-torn Syria. Following three attempts to get a visa, they were finally successful, taking a 24-hour-flight from Syria via Lebanon, to Dublin.

His family had to flee their family home when it was shelled by tanks and guns. For several months, all of the family, including several adults and 14 children, lived in a small apartment. During this time, his brother Ahmad, who now lives in Clonakilty, left the apartment to meet friends and was imprisoned by the government for two weeks. He was beaten and not allowed to sit down for the time that he was imprisoned.

His parents moved to another house in a rural town for a year. There, they lived without running water and electricity and had to endure a very cold winter.

Alsaad said: “I never thought my father would want to leave Syria, but he asked me to help him escape. Now, he looks at the news every day, upset and worrying about the people back home.”

A few months after arriving in Clonakilty, Alsaad’s father became very ill with diabetes and had to receive emergency care. Alsaad is convinced his father would not have survived if he had remained in Syria.

He recalls how, up until 2011, Syria was a beautiful place to visit and how his wife Margaret loved to spend her holidays there. Alsaad, a Muslim, said it was a nation where every religion lived in harmony, but now the country is in turmoil.

Carmel Nic Airt, principal of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin, Clonakilty
Carmel Nic Airt, principal of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin, Clonakilty

Meanwhile, Carmel Nic Airt, principal of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin, Clonakilty, is in Greece in a bid to assist the refugees fleeing persecution. Nic Airt had spent weeks in Leros, where she worked in the kitchens and helped the refugees to learn English. Heartbroken by what she had seen, she was inspired to lead a fundraising campaign in West Cork raising in excess of €20,000. She also joined forces with people throughout Co Cork to collect clothes, medicine, and food for a lorry supplied by Caulfield Transport which travelled to Greece.

Speaking from a refugee camp in Piraeus, Ms Nic Airt described the changes she witnessed. Since March 20, refugees entering Greece will be deported to Turkey as part of a deal with the EU. “The biggest change of all soon became apparent: The air of hopelessness and despondency among the refugees still there. Last time, even though conditions were terrible and there was huge overcrowding, they were still upbeat and had some hope.”

Since March 20, refugees are being detained in “hot spots”, which essentially means they are locked into camps, until they receive travel documents. They could be in these camps without adequate food and water for an indefinite period.

Dr Maria Hurley, a GP at VHI Swiftcare, Cork city, hopes to return to Greece after volunteering there for over two weeks, last month. At a camp on the Macedonian border, she treated people for a range of medical issues.

Dr Maria Hurley on the Macedonian border, where she treated people with a range of issues
Dr Maria Hurley on the Macedonian border, where she treated people with a range of issues

“Sitting around campfires with nothing to burn but plastic is causing the refugees to get watery eyes and asthma,” said Dr Hurley, who was impressed by the dignity of the “beautiful Syrian people”.

“There are people with diabetes who don’t have tablets. I came across a lot of people with diarrhoea, headlice, and scabies.

“I met a pharmacist who had a normal job, now he is queuing for food. I met a poor woman with a lump in her breast. If she was here she could get a biopsy, I don’t know what will happen her. I was speaking to one man whose wife was shot, he has five children in the camp with him. Everyone has someone killed in the war. It is a horrible situation.”

According to a Department of Justice spokesperson, the Government has agreed to take in 4,000 people in need of international protection; 520 of these will be taken in as programme refugees, with 263 admitted so far. Arrangements for the admission of the remainder are ongoing.

The balance is expected to arrive on a “phased basis” this year. The spokesperson said 2,622 will be relocation asylum seekers, but, so far, only 10 have arrived, with 31 more expected in the coming weeks. Ireland has recently pledged to take another 40 asylum seekers from Greece.

The spokesperson said: “The mechanism by which the balance of the 4,000 above are to be taken in has yet to be determined, as the migration crisis is still fluid and evolving, and final decisions in this regard will have to await further developments at EU level.”

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