Refugees in Ireland: Grateful for sanctuary and in search of a normal life

Syrian refugees want neither handouts nor pity but the chance to give back to their new home, says Joyce Fegan

Refugees in Ireland: Grateful for sanctuary and in search of a normal life

Ireland’s newest family, the Al Hariris, fled Syria to a hostile Turkey in 2015, before making the “last-resort” decision in March 2016, to take a 7m inflatable raft carrying 47 passengers, across the Mediterranean.

They ended up living in tents in a Greek refugee camp for approximately nine months and, on December 16, arrived in Mosney, Co Meath, with the hope of reclaiming their lives and starting over.

Now, after years of unthinkable hardship, they want neither pity nor handouts. Instead what they want is to contribute to and be part of Irish society.

“All we need is a normal life where we can go between people without those strange eyes that look at us and make us feel like we are different,” says Maisa, 19.

“We want to continue our life here where we can study, work, help people around us, that’s the most important thing.”

Maisa, who, like her two other sisters, Taqwa, 25, and Sarra, 17, speaks fluent English, wants to study business.

“We all had different goals but because of the situation, none of us could continue,” she explains. “For me personally, I wanted to study business and go out to the world and help my family but everything stopped because of the harsh situation of the country.”

Maisa has completed her second-level education.

The Al Hariri family (made up of mum Fatima and daughters Taqwa, Maisa, and Sarra) is from the city of Daraa in Syria, which is about one hour south of Damascus, and 1km from the border with Jordan.

“Our journey started once we entered Turkey and from Turkey, because of the harsh situation over there, we couldn’t stay,” says Maisa. “We had to leave.”

“We stayed one year in Turkey (2015) because we were told we would get access to education in Turkey, that we could easily get jobs but it was all false.

“They’d say one day that your certificate was accepted in the university, the other day they’d say ‘no, this is not acceptable.’ It went like that. We wasted one year of our life — the tension, it was very hard.

“The Turkish people, I am so sad to say this, but they treated us very badly. That was the reason we had to leave, we couldn’t continue our life over there.”

Fatima Al Hariri, from Syria with two of her daughters, Sarra, 17, left and Taqwa, 25 in the family’s temporary accommodation in Mosney, Co Meath. Picture: Moya Nolan
Fatima Al Hariri, from Syria with two of her daughters, Sarra, 17, left and Taqwa, 25 in the family’s temporary accommodation in Mosney, Co Meath. Picture: Moya Nolan

Maisa’s older sister, Taqwa, who hopes to study journalism, describes the family’s experience of travelling from Turkey to Greece on an inflatable raft, where she believed she was going to die.

“Even from the beginning, we were worried about how we would travel because it was by way of a small boat, two-and-a-half hours on a small boat,” says Taqwa.

“I thought I was going to die there, I was so sick. We left after one year and one month in Turkey. There were around 47 people on the small boat, it was seven metres long, it was an inflatable.

“The smugglers, we were saying to them that maybe Europe will be closed, they said ‘no don’t listen to the news, no, listen to people, it’s all open, you can go, it’s OK’.

“We went and it was horrible, it was at 12 o’clock at night when we arrived, it was cold.

“Kids were crying and because of the cold, they couldn’t move. I was looking at them, their hands and legs were frozen.”

However, once they came off the raft, despite their mother, Fatima, needing urgent medical help, the family ended up being detained for almost 12 weeks.

“When we reached Greece, because of the water that was in the raft, my mum had problems with her knees,” Maisa explains. “They carried her when we reached Greece, she couldn’t walk,” says Taqwa. “We saw lots of people, they helped us. They took us, with mum, to a ‘hospital’. We didn’t know that this would be a prison. They just took us inside, we didn’t know anything.

“They brought us everything, food, water, and after one month we wanted to go out but it was closed, we knew that it was a prison [a detention centre for undocumented immigrants].

The young women explain how Greek citizens would regularly protest outside the detention centre in support of the refugees who were being detained inside.

They spent one month here, before being moved to another camp for a period of about eight weeks, still without any knowledge of their legal status as people seeking refuge and relocation.

“Eventually, everything changed after two months and they opened the gates for us but we weren’t allowed to leave the island because they didn’t give us papers for leaving,” says Maisa.

“They told us that we had to take asylum in Greece so we can continue our journey through to relocation. From there, we started — my whole family — preparing our papers and many other refugees like us. Sometimes cases were stopped or people were refused and many people were deported back to Turkey, which was really horrible.

“People were suiciding, they were taking pills just to finish from this life, from the horror life of theirs.”

While life was not easy for the Al Hariri family in Greece, with harsh living conditions, the young women sought work as translators in the camp helping fellow refugees.

“We tried working and helping the volunteers and helping the refugees with translating and many other things, but it was very hectic,” says Maisa.

The family continued to support one another and friends they made in the camp while waiting patiently for news of their application for relocation and resettlement to another country.

“We didn’t have anything in our mind but all we wanted was that we go to a country where we can continue our education, continue our future, because we are still young in age,” says Maisa.

Taqwa Al Hariri,25, from Syria, right, with her sister Maisa, 19, left, and Zarra, 17, in their apartment in Mosney, Co Meath. Picture: Moya Nolan
Taqwa Al Hariri,25, from Syria, right, with her sister Maisa, 19, left, and Zarra, 17, in their apartment in Mosney, Co Meath. Picture: Moya Nolan

Then finally, one day when Maisa was out working, her phone rang.

“It was October 1, when we heard we were coming to Ireland and we couldn’t believe it,” she says. “They called me, the embassy, and I was so happy, I couldn’t believe it. I texted my sister to say I had a call from the embassy; it was a miracle, what happened with us.

“We were so happy because of the country, it’s far away from other countries like Germany or Belgium, it’s a totally different country.

“If we got relocated to any other country we would have had to start from zero, starting a new language, starting everything new, and it would be very hard for us to go around. Entering here, wherever they put us it’s easy to find a way because of the language.

“Since childhood, we’ve learned English.”

“Sometimes we talk in the house with my sisters, whenever we don’t want my mother to understand,” Taqwa says, adding: “For me, I’ve been dreaming of studying journalism since I think I was about six years old, but I couldn’t complete my studies. I had many problems. I had to leave everything [her university studies] after two months.”

Their younger sister Sarra, who had her secondary school education interrupted as a result of having to flee the conflict, also has dreams she hopes to pursue here.

“In secondary school, English and geography were my favourite subjects,” says Sarra. “I wanted to do nursing actually. I’ll try to do it if I have a chance.”

The family took a chartered flight, with other refugees, on December 16 from Athens to Dublin, where, upon landing, they were transferred to the former holiday camp Mosney, now an accommodation centre within the direct provision system. Here they live in a small apartment and await news of their future.

“At the moment, it’s an incomplete independence because we don’t have our papers yet, but hopefully once we get them, it will help us with many other things,” says Maisa. “That would be the moment when I would really feel independent and I will feel happy being part of the country.”

While they are extremely grateful for shelter in Mosney, they desperately want to receive their documents from the Government and move on to independent living where they have access to education and employment opportunities.

“Without studying and without school life, life is totally different, especially as we are ladies alone, without our own certificates, but with our own goals for this life,” says Maisa.

“Without being able to help ourselves, we will be lost. It’s very hard for people to help us as much as we could help ourselves.”

Asked, after everything her family have been through, if she still felt hopeful about life, she says that the four women would not be in Ireland today were it not for hope.

“We do, otherwise we wouldn’t have reached over here,” says Maisa. “Even in Greece, with the tensions over there, it was very hard. People kept on losing hope, I saw it in their eyes, them losing hope.”

Their mother, Fatima, with an optimistic and playful disposition, also has hope, and not only for her children but for every parent’s child.

“What I want for my family, I want for every family,” says Fatima. “I hope I see my family with a good education and a good life, and every human, everybody, we will try.”

Alone in a foreign state, Reem is in need of urgent medical care

 - Joyce Fegan

Reem Eid Alhamoud Alali , 41, fled Syria. She now lives at Mosney Accommodation Centre. Picture: Moya Nolan
Reem Eid Alhamoud Alali , 41, fled Syria. She now lives at Mosney Accommodation Centre. Picture: Moya Nolan

Reem Eid Alhamoud Alali is a 41-year-old Syrian woman who, like many others, fled her country for the safety of Europe.

She is currently being housed in the Mosney Accommodation Centre in Co Meath, without any family or friends from home.

She arrived here on December 16, 2016.

Reem needs urgent gynaecological care as she has a benign tumour on her womb, which had been treated unsuccessfully throughout her journey from Syria to Ireland.

“Life back in Syria is very hard to describe in words,” she says. “It was very nice living there until the war started. We studied there and worked and had everything we needed but after the war we lost everything.

“I worked in a beauticians and unfortunately lost everything. Everything started becoming expensive and it was very hard for us to get the things we needed and at times, there were almost 10 people living in my house and we had to eat very simply to just feed our hunger.

“The killing spread everywhere and I thought it was the end of the world. That was the moment when I decided to run away from death.”

Reem left Syria for Turkey in 2015.

“I met the vampires who sucked our blood just to smuggle us to Turkey, because all that was important to those smugglers was the money and we Syrians were business to them,” she says. “I crossed the borders of Syria after such a hard time.

“It was a time of fear and nervousness because it was not so easy, at any moment anyone could die. It took me two months to reach ‘The City of Smuggle’, Izmir — a period of time which was full of horror, suffering and hunger.”

Upon reaching Izmir, she took a raft to Greece, where she ended up living not in a refugee camp but in a forest with other fleeing migrants.

“We then rode the raft of death through the sea in search of a safe and peaceful place to live,” says Reem.

“We reached one of the islands of Greece, took our papers and straightaway went to the mainlands to get on our way to the borders but unfortunately the borders were closed and there we spent four months in the forest with many other people.”

Good news followed, however, when she learned of the European Relocation and Resettlement Programmes, which Ireland has signed up to, committing to take 4,000 refugees.

“We heard about the procedure of the relocation and there we all applied but never knew I would reach such a safe and far away country from the horror life of the borders of this world,” says Reem. “And here I am now in Ireland safe and happy, settled after a complete year in Greece.

“Hopefully, I will complete all my dreams here after they were broken in my past.”

Reem explains that she has several scars across her lower abdomen from unsuccessful treatment on the benign tumour in her womb.

Reem has visited a hospital here and is awaiting treatment.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up