Syrian refugees find peace in Northern Ireland
“As we say in Northern Ireland, ‘Come on, on, on in!’’’
In the rural town of Lurgan, County Armagh, retired teacher Arthur McKeown welcomes a few late stragglers to the English class he teaches on a voluntary basis at the St Vincent de Paul Society’s community centre. This morning’s lesson has the most British of themes.
‘What’s the weather like today?’ Arthur asks the class.
‘Rainy!’ the class chimes back. ‘Cloudy!’
Despite the gloomy outlook, Arthur’s students are brimming with enthusiasm to learn English and get to know their new home town. Almost all are refugees from Syria and have been resettled to Northern Ireland over the last few months as part of the Home Office’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, run in collaboration with UNHCR.
One of the keenest pupils in the class is Lina, a former English teacher from Aleppo. “Lurgan is a beautiful town,” she says. “I love it here, and in the future I want to work again as a teacher.” She is already volunteering as a primary school assistant and helping out in a charity shop, keen to give something back to the community that has welcomed her in.
Lurgan is a beautiful town. I love it here, and in the future I want to work again as a teacher.
Lina’s husband Issa - a builder by trade - is also rediscovering his skills in the St Vincent de Paul’s ‘men’s shed’, which offers a carpentry workshop for Lurgan’s male residents, and has recently opened its doors to Syrian refugees. “We do a bit of woodwork,” says one long-time men’s shed member. “But mainly it’s about the craic, and we’ll have anyone who’s keen to join in.”
The refugee recruits have even introduced new skills to the men’s shed. Some of the Syrians had been garment-makers before the war, and it is hoped that the industrial sewing machine newly donated to the shed will also prove popular with the Lurgan old guard.
One of the Syrian tailors resettled to Lurgan is Mohamad, who arrived in June with his wife Rada and their two children. Three years ago the family had been visiting his parents’ home in Aleppo’s old town when the neighbouring house was hit by a bomb, severely injuring their nine year-old daughter Dania. Immediately following the blast, the family managed to get her to a hospital in Kilis, across the border in neighbouring Turkey.
"Dania was critically ill,” explains her mother Rada. “For six weeks the only way I could see my daughter was through a screen. She was so badly injured – in her face, her stomach, the nerves in her legs were cut through and her arms are still covered in scars. In Turkey we couldn’t provide anything for her, we couldn’t afford the medicines. We didn’t even have anywhere to sleep, we were sleeping in a stairwell. The only thought in my head was to get my daughter to a place where she could get better.”
The couple scraped together the $7000 needed to pay for surgery. With no interpreter to communicate with doctors, it wasn’t until afterwards that they discovered that one of Dania’s kidneys had been removed. “We still don’t know why. Maybe it was damaged by shrapnel or maybe they took it…” she falters, the thought too painful to finish.
In Turkey the family registered with UNHCR, and were identified as being in need of resettlement. “The moment I registered with UNHCR I’ve been thankful from the bottom of my heart,” says Rada. The family recently celebrated Daria’s tenth birthday in Lurgan. Although she is still in constant pain and her right leg wasted, she will soon receive specialist care and undergo further corrective surgery to help her to walk.
Junior Ministers Alastair Ross and Megan Fearon have paid tribute to all the Syrian refugees living in Northern Ireland. Marking one year since the first families arrived, the Ministers also commended local communities for the welcome and support they had given the Syrian families.
Refugees who are already finding their feet in our society and enhancing the rich and diverse culture in the north. We should not underestimate the courage it has taken for them to embrace the opportunity for a new chapter in their lives.
Junior Minister Alastair Ross said: “The Executive has now received nearly 400 refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme, which aims to support victims of violence, women and children at risk and those in need of advanced medical care.
“A year after we welcomed the first group of Syrian refugees to Northern Ireland, it is important we acknowledge the tremendous work of those who have supported the Syrian families through a difficult transition to begin their new lives here. I offer my congratulations to all those involved in their successful resettlement.”
Junior Minister Megan Fearon said: “The relocation and resettlement of Syrian refugee families has been an enormous humanitarian effort to support families who are among the most vulnerable. All those involved in providing sanctuary and support can be rightly proud of the difference they are making to the lives of those people and their families.
“I pay tribute to the refugees who are already finding their feet in our society and enhancing the rich and diverse culture in the north. We should not underestimate the courage it has taken for them to embrace the opportunity for a new chapter in their lives.”
For the Shiid family, resettlement to Northern Ireland has offered the opportunity to rebuild their lives. After Mohamad’s mother and brothers were killed in the war, he holds little hope of returning to Syria any time soon. But for the first time in years, Mohamad is optimistic for his family’s future. “We hope that our children keep studying and that we can give them things we couldn’t provide in Syria. I’m happy because I know that their lives will be safe in Northern Ireland.”