Refugees in Ireland: ‘Our sister drowned on the raft and my baby was just eight weeks old’

A Syrian family tells Joyce Fegan all they have endured since fleeing Aleppo after Islamic State burnt their house down. They have slept rough in Turkey and lost a sister on a raft to Greece before arriving here in December.

Fatima Abdi, 24, with her daughter Vian, 14 months, her sister Amina, 21, and brother Edrees, 31 in their temporary accommodation in Mosney, Co Meath.

The Abdi family lost a sister to drowning as they fled Turkey on a small raft for the unknown shores of Greece.

This tragedy came after years of hardship, from abandoning an under-siege Aleppo to sleeping rough on the streets of Turkey, before fleeing to Kurdistan.

During this time, Fatima Abdi, 24, became pregnant with her now 14-month-old daughter Vian.

Vian was just eight weeks old when she took the voyage across the Mediterranean, the Syrians hoping to find refuge in a welcoming, peaceful Europe.

Fatima’s family, completed by sister Amina Adbi, 21, brother Edrees Abdi, 31, and her husband Nidar Abdi, 25, arrived in Ireland on December 16, 2016.

They are currently being housed in the Mosney Accommodation Centre, Co Meath, where they all live in a unit while waiting on word for their future here.

Their five-year journey to Ireland began in July 2012, when their mother (their father died when they were children) had to leave their home in Aleppo in order to get cancer treatment.

“It started when we were in Aleppo, my mother got cancer, and she had to get surgery so we left Aleppo for a village, where they could help her,” says Fatima.

“Then, after having the surgery, the doctors said that unfortunately the disease had spread all over her body but they didn’t know in time and after one year she passed away and we were alone with our brother.”

After the tragedy of losing their mother to cancer and with no remaining parents alive, they returned to their family home in Aleppo in 2013.

However, their stay there was short-lived due to the ceaseless fighting in the Syrian city.

“After the death of my mother, I stayed for a period of time but then Daesh [the Arabic name for Islamic State] entered our place and our house got burnt in Aleppo,” says Fatima.

“It was very hard for us. That was the moment when we decided to leave for Turkey with our brother. We had an older sister already living in Turkey.”

However, life in Turkey was unbearable for the Abdi family, as they met hostility wherever they went.

While they had planned to reunite with their older sister there and start life over, the harsh reception Syrians were receiving made this impossible.

“When we entered Turkey, we stayed for two months and because of the situation, it was very hard. We were sleeping in the streets — no one was there to help us,” says Fatima.

Next, they travelled to relatives in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is officially called the Kurdistan region in the Iraqi constitution and is located in northern Iraq.

“We left for Kurdistan of Iraq and over there, we had relatives and friends we knew,” says Fatima. “We stayed for two years over there but again we planned to leave for Turkey to reunite with our sister.”

Their return to Turkey at the end of 2015 was not a positive one, however, and they ended up staying for just two months.

“We were put in jail for two weeks for entering Turkey from Iraq,” says Fatima’s younger sister, Amina.

The struggle for family reunification continued and their older sister urged them to travel from Istanbul to Izmir, where they could meet her and leave together for Greece.

“We were in contact with our sister and she told us once we reached Izmir to inform her and we’d leave together for Greece,” says Fatima.

“Our older sister had tried many times to smuggle from Turkey to Greece but never completed the journey until this last time.”

“We went in a boat, which was from wood, and the accident happened and she passed away.”

The identification and burial of their sister’s body became the family’s next challenge. They were based in Athens but her body was on a nearby island, which was expensive to get to, as they had no money and were unable to get help from any agencies working in the area.

The family, now with Vian to take care of, remained adamant they wanted to see their sister’s body.

“Everyone washed their hands and said: ‘We are unable to help you.’ We needed money for tickets to get onto the island to see the dead body of our sister,” says Fatima.

“None of the organisations on the island would help us until an Egyptian guy said he’d pay, paying for four people’s tickets, €200 for the four of us.”

Refugees occupy a disused warehouse on the Greek island of Lesbos, where there are warnings that the refugee crisis is far from over. Picture: Owen Humphreys

Arriving in Greece on March 12, 2016, the family received word that they would be relocated to Ireland on September 6.

When their flight finally took off on December 16, for Dublin, it was not great joy and relief they felt but instead a deep sadness for the sister who was not making the final leg of this five-year journey with them.

Asked how they felt, after years of adversity, when the plane finally lifted off the tarmac in Athens airport for Ireland, the two sisters — Amina and Fatima — begin to quietly cry.

“We were happy, but I remember my sister, my sister in the grave on the island,” says Amina. I felt like I was leaving her.

“I feel this because we planned this together, we left Turkey for her, but we continued and she died.”

The sisters now ask themselves why they are alive and their sister isn’t.

“It’s very hard. It is a trial of life,” says Fatima.

Now living in Mosney, the family hope to receive their official documents from the Government sooner rather than later so that they begin to rebuild their lives with dignity and independence.

‘Give them chances so that they’re welcomed in schools and colleges and in workplaces — that’s what Irish people can do,’ says Shaykh Umar al-Qadri, head imam of the Islamic Centre Ireland.

The head imam of the Islamic Centre Ireland, Shaykh Umar al-Qadri, who has been visiting Syrian families at the accommodation centre, which is in the direct provision system, says this family want nothing more than to help themselves.

“They want to help themselves,” says Dr Al-Qadri. “They have gone through the past two, three years where they have been helped, and they appreciate it but they want independence, dignity.”

While baby Vian and her family wait for their official documents from the State, the imam says the best thing Irish people can do is to welcome them.

“Give them chances so that they’re welcomed in schools and colleges and in workplaces — that’s what Irish people can do.”

Syrians’ arrival

In September 2015, the Government committed to offering protection to 4,000 people under the EU Resettlement and Relocation Programmes.

We took in 40 Syrian refugees in November 2016 and a further 132 in mid-December.

The refugees live in temporary accommodation before moving on to independent living.

Accommodation centres include the former Hazel Hotel in Monasterevin, Co Kildare, and the Clonea Strand Hotel in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

Some have been moved to houses in Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Clare.

Ballaghaderreen, in Co Roscommon, will receive 80 refugees, mostly Syrians, next month.

Last September, Irish people were ranked as the most sympathetic towards Syrian refugees arriving in their country in a poll of 12 European nations.

Stem the tide of prejudice and ‘invite a Syrian family to dinner’

 - Joyce Fegan

Shaykh Umar Al- Quadri, leader of the Muslim community in Ireland, with the Abdi family who fled from Aleppo, Syria, and are now housed in temporary accommodation in Mosney. Baby Vian Abdi is in her aunt Amina’s arms with her mother Fatima, father Nidri, and uncle Edrees, all seated. Picture: Moya Nolan

Invite Syrian refugees into your home, listen to their “extraordinary stories” at your dinner table, and help combat the spread of prejudice against them, urges the head imam of the Islamic Centre Ireland.

Shaykh Umar al-Qadri, who is also chair of the Irish Muslim Peace & Integration Council, has established contact with many of the Syrian families who have been relocated to Ireland.

From the temporary accommodation centres they currently live in, the families have little contact with the outside world.

“When Syrian families arrive in Ireland, they spend some time in temporary accommodation to get used to their new life and also to finalise their documentation and permanent housing,” says Dr al-Qadri.

“This time can vary from a few weeks to a couple of months. Most families would love to be in touch with the Irish people and appreciate when they make new Irish friends. There are currently a limited number of Church groups, mosque groups, and other organisations that are in contact with Syrian families.

He says that a programme has already been set up to become a host family for these new arrivals.

“The Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council has established contacts with many Syrian families, regularly organises meetings with the families, and has already connected a number of Syrian families with the locals and many new friendships have started,” says Dr al-Qadri.

“We have an initiative called ‘Become a Host Family for a Syrian Family’. The idea is that you, as a host family, get connected with one Syrian family. You establish a friendship with them and visit them a couple of times in the month.

“As the host family, you can invite the Syrian family to your home for dinner or organise an outing with them to the shopping centre or the beach, etc.”

Dr al-Qadri is currently in America where he is taking part in a US State Department programme whereby he engages in dialogue about how to counter violent extremism.

He says that inviting a Syrian family to your home is not only appreciated by them, but it helps the process of integration and reduces the risk of misunderstanding cultures.

“Not only is this much appreciated by the Syrian families, as they spend most of their time within the accommodation centres without contact with the outer world, but it also helps the process of integration,” says Dr al-Qadri.

He details some of the friendships that have already blossomed as a result of the programme.

“We have an Irish family who took a Syrian family to Bray for a day out,” he says.

“Another Irish family hosted a Syrian family for dinner at their home and the Syrian lady was delighted to be able to cook a Syrian dish in the kitchen of the host family.

“The lady had not cooked for the past two years. It was an amazing experience. Her children had not eaten food cooked by their mother for two years. The Irish host family was also introduced to the amazing mouth- watering Syrian cuisine.”

But aside from the simple gesture of breaking bread, this invitation into an Irish home will help foster understanding in Irish society and serve stem the rising tide of prejudice in the wider world.

“Each Syrian family has an extraordinary story,” says Dr al-Qadri. “These stories must be shared so people can understand why it’s important to embrace and welcome them.

“Also by doing so, we can combat the spread of misunderstandings and prejudice of Muslim refugees. People will understand that they are just like us, human beings with families who just want a peaceful life.

“Also, I would urge people to write into papers and continue to highlight the generosity of the Irish nation.”

Dr al-Qadri was motivated to start this integration process because of his own experiences as a migrant in Europe.

He knows, first-hand, how a lack of communication and dialogue can lead to misunderstandings.

“The reason I decided to be involved is because I have seen from my experience in the Netherlands as a second generation Muslim migrant that often people create misunderstandings and prejudice about ‘the other’ because they do not communicate and build contact with them,” says Dr al-Qadri.

“I realised that not only do many non-Muslims have misunderstandings about Islam, but many Muslims also have misunderstandings about non-Muslims. And this is all due to no communication and the lack of proper integration.

“We live in a diverse world and the diversity among people is a beautiful reality and not one to fear.

“I would recommend those interested in becoming a host family to contact Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council.”

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