'God willing, we will be in Ireland soon'

'It’s like their minds are already there': After a lengthy Covid-19 delay, Irish officials return to Lebanon to complete resettlement of Syrian families
'God willing, we will be in Ireland soon'

Shahinaz and Mohamad with their children Ahmad, Moustafa and Adam in Beirut. Picture: Hannah McCarthy

After a decade of violence in Syria and economic collapse in Lebanon, Ireland promised Mohamad and Shahinaz the chance to build a secure and safe life for their young family.

In March 2020, the couple were due to be interviewed by Irish officials who had come to Lebanon to resettle 400 Syrian refugees to Ireland.

The couple had completed a lengthy pre-selection process with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and sold many of their household possessions in preparation for their move. The meeting with Irish officials was supposed to be the last hurdle before the family could call Ireland home.

Then, two days before their interviews, Mohamad and Shahinaz were told the team had returned to Ireland due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their interviews were cancelled, with no details of when they would be rescheduled.

“The cancellation of the interview was a big shock,” says Mohamad, who is from Aleppo, one of the main battlegrounds during the Syrian civil war. “We were holding on to it so much.” 

Mohamad and his son Adam. Picture: Hannah McCarthy
Mohamad and his son Adam. Picture: Hannah McCarthy

Before leaving Lebanon, the team from Ireland had completed about half of their interviews. As a result, 227 Syrians were cleared for resettlement to Ireland. A team returned to Lebanon briefly in June 2020 to bring these families to Ireland.

The couple is part of a Facebook group with the rest of the Syrian families who were due to be resettled last year.

“We were excited when we heard that the officials were coming back last June, we thought that they’d be able to schedule the interviews, but they didn’t,” says Mohamad. “We didn’t get a reason why.” 

According to Lisa Abou Khaled, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Lebanon, travel restrictions during Covid-19 led to a 50% decrease in departures of refugees from Lebanon for resettlement.

The Syrian families which were able to move successfully to Ireland last year regularly check in on Mohamad and Shahinaz.

Instead of starting a new life in Ireland, the Syrian couple have spent the last 18 months trying to survive in a collapsing economy grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and facing dire fuel shortages.

A growing number of Syrian families in Lebanon are finding it impossible to provide for their children. “The conditions have been terrible for the last two years,” says Shahinaz. “I’ve been struggling just to buy diapers for my son.” 

Many Syrians are taking desperate measures to support their families, including sending their children to work, marrying off young daughters, skipping meals and incurring debt they can’t afford.

In Arsal, a deprived Lebanese town close to the Syrian border, families are moving into tents after being evicted from their homes. Some were unable to pay 500,000 lira for monthly rent (currently the equivalent of about €30).

Protests over the economic crisis in Beirut. Picture: Hannah McCarthy
Protests over the economic crisis in Beirut. Picture: Hannah McCarthy

The conditions in Lebanon were exacerbated by the devastating port explosion in Beirut last August. The blast damaged the family’s apartment and left the family of five badly shaken. “My older sons get scared whenever they see smoke or fire now,” says Mohammad.

Like many Syrian children, the couple’s two oldest sons are not enrolled in any school in Lebanon. Before the crisis began in mid-2019, Mohamad was just about able to afford his sons’ monthly school fees of 200,000 lira.

Rapid inflation led the fees to increase to 600,000 lira and put education for the two boys out of reach. “They’re at a sensitive age,” says Mohamad. “They need a proper education.” 

Another chance at resettlement 

After 18 months of uncertainty, Mohamad was informed this week that a resettlement team from Ireland had returned to Lebanon. The team includes officials from the Department of Integration and An Garda Síochána.

In total, 300 Syrians based throughout Lebanon will be interviewed for resettlement this month by the team. About 150 refugees are under consideration again this year after their interviews were cancelled last year.

“God willing, we will be in Ireland soon,” says Mohamad. “We love Lebanon, but it has become unbearable.” 

Few choices 

A boy looks on as his family build the tent they will live in after being evicted from their home in Arsal, Lebanon. Picture: Hannah McCarthy
A boy looks on as his family build the tent they will live in after being evicted from their home in Arsal, Lebanon. Picture: Hannah McCarthy

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are in an extremely vulnerable position. The economic depression has pushed the majority of Lebanese below the poverty line and created an increasingly hostile environment for the estimated 1.5m Syrian refugees in the country.

But, while Syria remains war-torn and predominantly controlled by Bashir al-Assad, any returns by refugees are dangerous and potentially lethal. Suspected opposition figures continue to be detained and tortured by Assad’s regime — Mohamad himself was detained before fleeing to Lebanon. Syria also lacks basic infrastructure after 10 years of conflict.

In this difficult context, resettlement programmes to stable third countries provide a lifeline for a limited number of refugees deemed particularly vulnerable by the UNHCR.

The resettlement process 

Ireland’s resettlement programme is run in partnership with the UNHCR and expects to resettle 2,900 people from 2020-2023.

The programme allows refugees in a host country outside the EU, (ie, Lebanon) who fall within a specified category to be resettled directly to Ireland. As they have already been determined by the UNHCR to meet the definition of a refugee, they are not required to apply for refugee status in Ireland.

Given the large size of the Syrian refugee population and the relatively small EU resettlement quotas, the reality is that very few refugees in Lebanon will have the opportunity to be resettled.

Ms Abou Khaled says the UNHCR identifies cases with “potential protection vulnerabilities” through their units operating around Lebanon and by personnel providing services to refugee communities.

Potential resettlement cases are pre-screened during an initial telephone call and then scheduled for a ‘case identification’ interview. During the interview, which can last several hours, the refugee’s resettlement needs are examined and assessed.

Any cases prioritised for resettlement are then scheduled for a second interview. The person’s refugee status is determined and submitted for resettlement if appropriate, according to Ms Abou Khaled.

The selection process, however, remains opaque to many refugees. “It’s not clear how people are selected for resettlement,” says Mohamad.

His sister, who lives in the same building as him in Beirut, applied to be resettled but wasn’t approved. She never received a reason why, he says.

Irish vetting 

After the pre-selection process was completed for the latest batch of Syrian applicants in Lebanon, the UNHCR provided the resettlement cases to Ireland. There, officials reviewed the backgrounds of the applicants and scheduled (and then re-scheduled) the final in-country interviews.

The interviews are focused on “cultural integration, ensuring that proposed refugees understand the culture of Ireland which refugees will be expected to embrace, along with ensuring that refugees understand that their culture and religion will be respected in Ireland”, according to the spokesperson for the Department of Integration.

“Rejections are very rare as they have been pre-screened by the UNHCR,” says the spokesperson. Security reasons, or strong indications the individual will find the cultural difference in Ireland too great, are cited as possible barriers to resettlement.

Following the end of the mission this month, gardaí will conduct security checks and refugees are offered pre-departure orientation and medical checks.

The Syrian resettlement group is expected to arrive in Ireland in November, where they will initially be hosted at reception centres, according to the spokesperson for the Department of Integration.

An education and new accents 

When Mohamad’s older sons, Moustafa and Ahmad, were first told about moving to Ireland last year, they began googling the country. “It looks beautiful and filled with joy,” says Ahmad, the middle boy.

The two boys were disappointed when they didn’t move to Ireland last year. “It’s like their minds are already there,” says Mohamad.

The pair like swimming and music and Shahinaz is excited for them to have the chance to practise their hobbies in Ireland. Without school and due to the lockdown, they have spent much of the last year inside their family’s apartment.

Mohamad says his focus is on security and safety for his family, and an education for his sons. He hopes they’ll have Irish accents soon too.

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