The human toll of the ongoing conflict in Syria has seen many refugees coming to the island of Ireland over the past two years. While Extern in Northern Ireland has been working with refugees since 2016, Extern Ireland followed suit in 2017 and resettled a number of families under a similar scheme.

The challenges faced by the refugees were often considerable, as they arrived with little knowledge of the language or culture, with few possessions and with often complex health and family needs. This, of course, was often underpinned by the trauma many were coping with following the conflict itself and the often terrifying journey to get to safety.

Here, one service user, Mohammed, recounts the ordeal faced by him and his family, and how Extern has given them hope for the future after resettling in Ireland.

“I lived in the city of Homs. The date of May 25th, 2013, is a day that will never be erased from my memory and will continue to haunt me for decades.

“I was seriously injured as a result of a shell that fell on our house. My uncle, who lived with us, died as a result of his injuries. Some people carried out first aid on me and kept me alive. I was brought to hospital in Beirut, in the neighbouring state of Lebanon, where I underwent a lot of surgical operations. I lived in a camp there for almost two years.

“Life in Lebanon was difficult; both my parents, my two siblings and my wife and I shared a tent with only a sheet hung in the middle for privacy. We had very little money and only 50 litres of water a day to cook and clean with, plus two toilets for every 20 tents.

My wife had become pregnant and my only concern was for my family, and not my health. My hands and my left leg were broken, my only thoughts were to get out of the camp for my baby’s future.”

Mohammed and his family, which now included a baby boy, eventually raised enough money to travel to Turkey. They then tried to reach the Greek islands in a perilous night-time crossing by sea.

“They put 70 of us into a small rubber boat, and two hours into our journey the boat stopped due to engine failure. The sea was rising and the boat took us left and right, everyone was terrified of drowning. Women started screaming, children were crying. The feeling was indescribable. Eventually the Turkish coastguard saved us.

“After two more failed attempts, we tried a fourth time. The small rubber boat had four poorly-mended holes. I had prepared the best I could by getting old life jackets and a rubber tube from a car tyre. The owner of the boat forced us on saying that this was our last chance; I had no choice, as we were starving, and I could not bring my child up in this - it was death by hunger or death by sea.

“Around 600 metres into our journey, the driver of the boat jumped out and swam back to shore, telling us to drive towards Greek waters. As we approached Greek waters the boat started to leak and began to sink. The women sat in the middle with the children, with the men on the outside. One woman had a phone and contacted the Red Cross in Greece. Their coastguard saved us.”

After landing in Greece, the family were given food and shelter and papers to cross the country. After spending a month camped at the border with Macedonia, they were told they would not be able to cross. Now facing the possibility of losing his leg to infection, Mohammed contacted the UN for help, who took them to better living accommodation in Albania, where they were to remain for a year before getting word that they had a meeting with the Irish Embassy.

“It was an unreal feeling to be told we had somewhere to go. I knew nothing about Ireland, but the thought that this could be over was enough. Some people at the camp were envious and told us that there was no racism in Ireland and the first language was English. We were very happy.

“My first impression of Ireland was that I was scared and lonely. We stayed in a hotel and I met with doctors who had said that my leg was badly infected and may need to come off. It was a worrying time. Thanks to the care of the medical staff, though, and four surgical operations they saved my leg and I was able to get out and meet people. I found the people to be friendly and nice; it was starting to feel like home.

“When I was told we had a house in a town, it was the happiest I’d been. We met with staff from Extern in our hotel who explained what would happen when we moved. My wife and I were excited, the Extern staff made us feel hopeful and that we would have someone to help us.

“Extern staff have listened to our needs, they have helped us feel settled and stable in our new home. My son is now in school and we have a good social life. I want to be independent, and feel I can be with the help of Extern staff. My journey to get here feels like a memory, I risked my family’s life on that boat and it has paid off.

“On that day in 2013 I thought there was no future, but with the compassion, dedication and help of services like those I have received from Extern, I have a home and can see a future - home is where my family is.”

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