Hani Aliwi, an intercultural worker who worked with Syrian arrivals to Cavan and Monaghan, and Atef Alharki, who resettled in Cavan with his family last year.

‘Cavan is our home now’

Atef Alharki vividly remembers the phonecall from a UN refugee official in 2018. The question was simple in one respect - the answer was either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Eighteen months had passed since Atef committed to extracting his family from the dire circumstances in which they were living after fleeing Syria.

“I asked if I could call them back in 15 minutes,” recalls Atef. “I needed to think.”

Atef flicked the screen of his phone and quickly Googled ‘Ireland’.Having never been outside the Middle-East, his knowledge of the Emerald Isle was limited to say the least.

“The language was English, and then I found a really good review on YouTube that said Irish people are really lovely and friendly. I rang my wife and she said ‘yes’ too.”

It’s now been 12 months from when Atef, his wife Shurki and four of the couple’s five children were among 114 Syrians, totalling 19 families, who resettled in Cavan late last year.

The Alharkis began their new life alongside nine other Syrian families living in Cavan Town. Six more families resettled in Virginia, and three in Bailieborough.

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Cavan has a successful history of refugee resettlement having welcomed six Congolese families and one male adult back in 2013.

Atef and his family come from Al-Naimah, a ‘village’ not much smaller than Cavan Town, near the Jordanian border and some 90km south of the capital Damascus.

It is also not far from Daraa, considered the ‘cradle of the revolution’ after protests there sparked the beginning of Syrian Uprising in March 2011.

According to reports, Syrian security forces led by President Bashar al-Assad opened fire on the protesters killing three. Today it’s estimated 577,660 have died in the Syrian Civil War.

A trained upholsterer, Atef was working in neighbouring Lebanon, with his family still in Al-Naimah, when fighting first broke out.

At the start, he recalls only minor demonstrations. But as tensions quickly escalated Atef’s family went to live with him in Lebanon. His parents and siblings remained in Al-Naimah.

“When I came back to my village, I found life had changed in all ways. The first I noticed was the checkpoints. People were not allowed to travel to or leave Daara. I tried to understand what was happening. Was it security? But then the government decided not to allow food or medicine into [Daara],” says Atef, speaking to The Anglo-Celt through Hani Aliwi, an intercultural worker acting as translator who had worked with Syrian arrivals to Cavan and Monaghan.

But by then even life in Lebanon had begun to change.

It was no longer safe to simply walk the streets at night, despite strong presence from UN forces, while religious anxieties also became more pronounced.

Atef, a Sunni Muslim, found himself surrounded by people who had also fled the conflict but who remained steadfastly loyal to the Assad-led regime, or Hezbollah, a long-time ally of Syria’s Ba’ath government.

Atef was attacked twice. The unprovoked beatings took place in the street, and in full view of others.

It was around this time he approached UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency dedicated to saving lives and protecting the rights of displaced communities.

Atef has had “many” friends, family, neighbours who have died because of the war in Syria.

He counts himself “lucky” to have survived.

“From the first day I said to them I was not looking for food or money, but I was just asking them to secure for me a safe place for myself and my family.”

Atef becomes emotional as he begins to speak about his family still trapped between Syria and Lebanon.

His mother is ill, left incapacitated following a botched back operation; while his eldest daughter and her husband are living in similar threatening circumstances to those Atef was living before leaving Lebanon and arriving in Ireland.

His daughter has two children, the youngest of whom was born shortly before Atef left Lebanon. He has fond memories of holding his little granddaughter in his arms.

“It’s really very hard for family reunification,” explains Hani of the change in refugee applications enacted Jawuary 1, 2017, which classifies those of adult age, even from the same family, as separate cases.

Hani, who has been working with Syrian refugees for the past six years and forms part of a team alongside resettlement support worker Joanne McCabe, says there are many families who have left loved ones behind for a safe resettlement elsewhere. “Some leave everything behind.”

The department are aware of Atef’s situation. His family have tried to make the requisite applications, as yet to no avail.

“There are two sides. One is that me and my family are going to be travelling to a new country, a safe country. The other is what we had to leave behind. If I stayed, the situation would remain bad and I might lose everything,” says Atef, who speaks to his family on a daily basis.

He urges them to remain strong and, once things improve for them in Ireland, says he’ll send them whatever money they can spare.

Atef and his family, who spent the initial nine months living in the Clonea Strand Hotel outside Dungarvan, are now doing their best to adapt to their new life in Cavan.

He passed his driving test recently and has secured a part-time job with a local furniture factory.

While language might still be a barrier, Atef’s highly honed skill in the trade is universally translatable.

Like everyone, Covid has severely impacted the lives of refugees living in Cavan and slowed down integration.

Not long after arriving in Ireland Atef’s children started attending local schools. But almost as soon as they’d comfortably gotten their feet under the desk, the country went into lockdown.

Regardless, it fills Atef’s heart with joy knowing his children are now growing up in a safe environment.

A proud father, he wants to see them do well, both in school and in life.

“As a Syrian and because of the bad treatment we received in Lebanon, we don’t make friends easily,” Atef explains.

“I know there are Syrians here in Ireland who are afraid that Irish people will treat them like they were treated in Lebanon. I know this is not true. But this is what they feel. When I came to Ireland, my goal was for my kids to live in a safe country and to get a better education. For me and my family, we are very happy here. Cavan is our home now.”

To those who feel negative towards the resettlement of refugees or asylum seekers in Ireland, Atef states: “Nobody wants to leave their homeland or leave family behind for no reason. We are all human beings. We have to treat each other equally, and we all live on this earth together.

He adds: “When we came here everything was changed. The language, the culture, everything. But I also say that everything was positive. This is our new life. We are very thankful.”

To mark the one-year anniversary of the arrival of Syrian refugees to Cavan, Cavan County Local Development (CCLD), the body assigned to provide integration services and assist the families in building independence in their new communities, will plant a native Syrian rose.

Commemorating World Arabic language and International Migration Day (December 18) also, a Damask Rose and Jasminum officinale flower will be planted at various schools and by local communities in Virginia and Bailieborough (December 11) and Cavan Town (December 16).