Christmas has arrived in Ballaghaderreen and it will mean different things to different people. For Mary Gallagher, it is all about the Nativity and a long journey in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Therefore, it’s not surprising that her reaction to the arrival of Ballaghaderreen’s own visitors from the East earlier this year touched the hearts of the nation in the TV3 documentary ‘Ireland’s Refugee Hotel’.
The other star of that documentary was 21-year-old Ghassan Shamet. I met Ghassan and 23-year-old Mahmoud Al Hilo in Ballaghaderreen recently. The young Syrian men were forced to flee their homeland after civil war broke out in 2011.
Ghassan explained the series of events that brought him from his home in Deir ez-Zoir near the Iraqi border to an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre on the border of Mayo and Roscommon.
“In Syria when I was 18 my parents told me I should leave. I can’t stay in Syria. If I stay there I will go with Assad’s army because I am 18. My dad and my mom they don’t like fighting, they don’t like war. They tell me we should leave Syria. I left Syria with my grand-auntie and my cousin. I left my dad, my mom, my sister and brother. They are in Syria now. My brother, he is 13 and my sister is 18. I leave them. I (had to) go to Turkey with my grand-aunt and my cousin and her little girl.”
After Turkey came Greece where Ghassan says he slept on the street for a fortnight before finding accommodation in the form of a caravan on the outskirts of Athens.
Then came the refugee camp.
“It was very terrible in the camp,” he says before describing the mishmash of human movement. “Syrian people, Iraqi people, Afghani people, Kurdish people mixed. Different minds. Sunni, Shiite mixed. It was a problem, not a big problem, but it’s a problem. Before the war in Syria we don’t ask people ‘Are you Sunni or Shiite?’ We don’t ask this question to any people. It was just normal life. When you are a good friend, I am very good with you. If you want help, I help you. We drink coffee, smoke shisha (flavoured tobacco), go to dance, party, everything together. But the war started in Syria and everything is different.”
Ghassan stayed for a year in the camp before the call came.
“I went with a programme of the UN. They rang me: ‘Hello Ghassan, congratulations! You are going to Ireland with your grand-aunt.’
“(Laughs) I don’t know anything about Ireland! I put a post on Facebook asking people if they know anything about Ireland to contact me. Some people contact me and they say it’s a very nice country, very friendly and the language is easy. You can learn quickly, some people will teach you.
“I arrive here with my grand-aunt and my cousin on 8th of February 2017. We like here, too much we like Ireland. The people are very friendly; I have lots of Irish friends now and Pakistani friends. I am very happy with that.”
He has settled well. He’s a bright, young man with a bubbly personality. That has allowed him to sow the seeds for a new life here.
Ghassan tells me he wanted to be a journalist back in Syria but was forced to abandon that dream. Two weeks ago he started a course in media photography in Trinity College. He also won an award for his work as a volunteer at the Community Games recently. He acted as a translator for young Syrian participants. He’s naturally good with people.
“In 2012 the war started in my city. I went to another city with my family, Hasakah. My dad left his job so we don’t have much money for a house and things like this. I speak with my dad about opening a café for coffee and shisha. We opened the café and we worked for around four years.”
Ghassan’s introduction to the world of business was cut short by the threat of inscription and imprisonment. He left the business, his city and his family behind but constantly thinks about them.
“It’s too hard to leave my family in Syria because all the time I think about them. Are they safe? Are they Ok?”
He talks to his mother once a week if he’s lucky. She tells him not to worry and that she’s ok, but Ghassan knows that they are struggling.
Ghassan is, however, looking forward to Christmas in his new home and remembers the festive season in Syria prior to 2011 with great affection. Muslims celebrated alongside Christians he tells me, religion didn’t matter.
Now though, he is looking forward to “a new year, maybe a new life, a new everything in Ireland.”
He is sad that he can’t share it with his family but is thankful to the Irish people for helping him and his people.
“We start a new life, we learn English, and we meet new people and make many friends. I am very happy. I can sleep now. I can’t sleep in Syria because I (was) afraid people (would) knock on the door and take me. I am safe here and I can start my life but I can’t forget my city and my family in Syria.”
As for those who may be worried, anxious or downright angered by the influx of Syrian refugees into Ireland, Ghassan understands.
“Ireland is a small country and some people don’t know refugee people. Some people don’t like refugee people. They hear about ISIS on the News.
“We are refugee people and we are Muslim but we don’t like fighting. We don’t like asking people if they are Christian or Muslim. We like when people are happy and (we want) to have a good life.”
A fresh start and the hope of a good life. Simple wishes this Christmas among those in the EROC in Ballaghaderreen.