A Syrian family relocated to Dunshaughlin as part of a new community sponsorship programme has thanked the people of the village for the ‘love’ they have felt since they arrived before Christmas.
In a welcome party at Dunshaughlin Pastoral Centre recently, Angham Al Fakir said they had been on the “journey of a lifetime”, but that everybody had made it so easy for them. Angham, her husband, Zuhair, and young daughter, Lorca, arrived from Lebanon, where they had been living in very bad circumstances, through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
They are the first to arrive in Ireland under a new community sponsorship programme which is to be officially launched in March by the Government.
The Al Fakirs had been living in Lebanon, where Zuhair had been working in TV production, but as he had lost his Syrian identification papers and documents which allowed him live in Lebanon, he was in constant danger, particularly as he could not return to Syria.
Lorca at the Spring to Autumn sculpture outside the old courthouse in Dunshaughlin.
When he had earlier returned to Syria for a family reason, he was arrested and disappeared for 15 days.
While they admit that they have not been through as much horrors as other Syrian families have, losing life and limbs, they have experienced the traumas of the civil war in the Middle Eastern state.
“After the Syrian crisis ... war, ... revolution, we found ourselves in a trap,” Zuhair, who had been living and working in Lebanon since 1997, explains. “We lost our legal protection in the Lebanon, and the only option was to go to the UNHCR to get alternative documents.”
Zuhair, Angham and Lorca Al Fakir in Dunshaughlin.
When her grandmother died in Syria in 2012, Angham and Lorca, who was then just an infant, travelled to her funeral. A friend in Syria needed help, and under Syrian law, Angham needed her husband’s permission to take Lorca back out of the country too, so Zuhair travelled to Syria to help their friend and bring his family back.
“I was arrested at the border under a list of two charges,” he explains.
“One was pure political, as the TV channel I was working for had taken a stance against the Syrian regime since the assassination of the prime minister in 2005. The charge was that I had connections with people who were supporting the opposition in Syria.”
Zuhair Al Fakir with Dr Nazir Eldin and grandson Mysaa at the welcome party in Dunshaughlin village.
Zuhair says he was sympathetic to that particular cause following the prime minister’s killing.
“The second charge was that it had been written in a secret intelligence report that I had been involved in a particular war action against Syria in 2011, in my home village –but I was in Lebanon at the time.”
A politician in Lebanon who was close to Syrian leader al- Assad intervened and he was released, but was told to leave the country and not return.
In the meantime, Angham had no idea where her husband was, and was using contacts in her former employment, the Ministry for Defence, to try locate him.
“The original prison we heard he was in was a particularly violent one, where few come out alive, so we thought he was dead,” she says. “Then we heard he was moved to another prison as his name had been seen on a list, but he hadn’t been seen.”
It transpired he had been held at a prison close to her mother’s home, where she often walked near. And when he was released, he ran all the way back to that house, in his boots which had had the laces removed.
“Lorca didn’t recognise him because of his beard, but she recognised ZuZu’s boots!” she adds.
The Al Fakirs had a comfortable life in Lebanon before the war, but things took a turn when the TV company wound down and Zuhair lost his job. With no income, no papers (Angham’s residency papers had run out too), they found themselves depending on the generosity of friends and selling their belongings.
The final decision was coming down to affording rent or Lorca’s school fees. In 2017, an opportunity arose to go to Argentina on a UNHCR resettlement, but they declined that due to language difficulties. Then, the chance to come to Ireland arose, and they were interviewed by Irish officials last June, before being approved to come here.
The Dunshaughlin initiative was spearheaded by Nola Leonard, who was influenced by Pope Francis’ call last year to all countries to look after families displaced by the Syrian crisis.
She appealed for help at a community meeting in Dunshaughlin, and through NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, identified the family resettlement programme as an option.
A group of nine worked together on the project locally, with a suitable property located, and members helped the family settle since their arrival on 11th December.
One of the unexpected benefits of Dunshaughlin is that young Lorca, attending the local national school, can continue her French at the European languages school opened there for the families working at the European Union Food and Veterinary Offices in nearby Kiltale.