The four families of Syrian refugees who arrived in Birr several weeks ago met their neighbours in a getting to know one another event in Birr Rugby Club last week.
This was a very pleasant event where the refugees offered us some of their wonderful Syrian cuisine and interacted with a number of local people.
Addressing the gathering, Sara Stephens, Resettlement Co-ordinator, said the Rugby Club occasion was "a nice opportunity for locals and service providers to meet the families in an informal, pleasant setting."
Cllr Peter Ormond, Cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council, said he was delighted and honoured to be present "to welcome here today the four Syrian families to Birr and Offaly. We look forward to integrating you happily into our community and becoming part of our community. We look forward to your contributions to our community, contributions which we are sure will be special.
"The settlement of Syrian refugees in Tullamore and Birr has been going on for several months now and it has proven to be a very successful programme. Yesterday the Pride of Place Judges arrived in Birr and met Birr Tidy Towns. It was a hugely positive event. It showed Birr as the place we know it to be, as a warmhearted and very welcoming place. Birr is a lovely town with lovely people. It is a very good place to live in and work in. "
As Cllr Ormond spoke his words were translated by Radwan Abouhajar, a Resettlement Support Worker. Radwan is a father of two and he came to Ireland as a refugee in December 2014. He holds a BSC in Ag Science. He works for Offaly Local Development Company and is working to establish polytunnel gardens with the Syrian communities in Tullamore and Birr.
Two teenagers from the Syrian families addressed the gathering. Ahmed said he is 15 years of age. "I have three brothers here and two sisters. When we left Syria because of the war in 2012 we went to Lebanon. I worked with my father in a pharmacy. I want to thank the Irish government for allowing me and my family to live here in your beautiful country. We arrived in Ireland earlier this year. When I grow up I want to be a Chemist. So far I am enjoying my life in Ireland."
Diaa said his family fled to Lebanon in 2013 and moved to Ireland in 2019. He is a student in St Brendan's Community School. "I want to thank the Irish government and the Irish people for their kindness."
Radwan gave us some background about Syria. He pointed out that we associate Syria with war, desolation and destruction, but the country has another face. He showed us beautiful photographs as examples of Syria's impressive built heritage. He pointed out that Syria has a very rich culture and heritage and an ancient, venerable history.
He talked about the country's demographics, its geography, industry, cuisine. He talked about the many Syrians who have done remarkably well in the West. He pointed out that Syria was important throughout history because of its geographical location. It has thousands of things and places which are considered culturally important. He said there were 22 million people in Syria before the outbreak of the Civil War in 2011, since when six million have emigrated. Ten million Syrians are displaced inside and outside Syria. There are one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where the children don't have a proper education system in place.
“There are four seasons in Syria," continued Radwan, "and our summers, from June to August, are very hot. Our winters, from December to February can be very cold. Most Syrians are Muslim and speak Arabic. Ten per cent are Christian and there are 70,000 Yazidis. We are very proud of our cuisine, which is famous. The population of the city of Aleppo is five million. Aleppo Castle is one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. Unfortunately, some of it has been destroyed. Damascus is known as the city of jasmine. Everywhere you go there is the smell of jasmine. It has a population of two million and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It also has the biggest mosque in the country and one of the biggest, oldest covered markets.
“The language which Jesus spoke was Aramaic and it is still spoken in parts of Syria.”
Radwan told us that until 2012 he was living happily in Syria with his family, working as a banker, and then, worried for their safety, they decided to flee and became Asylum Seekers and then Refugees.
He pointed out that most Syrian women wear the hijab but some don't. He spoke about the Islamic faith and about some of the characteristics of Arabic.
Radwan said he was certain the new families will be positive additions to their new communities. He said the families now see Ireland as their new home. “We don't see ourselves returning to Syria. We see Ireland as our country, our home, now. What is very important is that our children are growing up here. That fact is of crucial importance.”
Radwan said there are 13 Syrian families in Portlaoise. “One of them is a civil engineer now. Another has opened a garage. Another works in a pharmacy.”
Speaking to the Tribune after the event, Sara Stephens said the four families are settling into their new lives in Birr and are getting on well with their neighbours. She said two of the children are in the local primary schools and five are attending the Community School. The adults are attending English classes, after which it is hoped they will engage in volunteering work in the community and will also find employment. She said there are no plans at the moment to bring more refugee families to Birr.