Qais Khalaf and daughters Zainab (born in Syria in August 2015) and Rosol (born in Greece in September 2016), and Qais's cousin Abdalah Khalaf , in their new home in Carlingford.
If you were to spot Qais Khalaf, his wife Khawla and their two children, Zainab and Rosol, strolling down the main street in Carlingford you would never guess of the hardships they faced in getting to where they are today. Indeed the journey that brought this young family to Irish shores is almost unfathomable.
Qais tells the Dundalk Democrat about settling into life in his new home. “It's a small town, but it's very beautiful. Lots of mountains and rivers flowing down to the Lough.”
Qais is settling into life in Carlingford and hopes to find a job in the locality soon
He's currently taking lessons so he can get his Irish driving license. After his chat with the Dundalk Democrat, he's off to his English language class. There's just one problem – his level of English is too advanced.
However, the 25-year-old Syrian man still attends, as he's eager to practice speaking English. It's a testament to his strong work ethic.
Qais Khalaf grew up in Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, located 450km northeast of the capital, Damascus. He lived a happy life there and began to train in medicine, at The University of Damascus.
However, the young man had to leave university as the conflict began in his country. Qais feared he could face military conscription as he travelled into the city to pursue his studies. So the young Syrian began teaching biology and managing a private school in Deir ez-Zor and enjoyed his work for two years until Isis banned education and the school was closed.
Qais stayed a further nine months in his family home in Deir ez-Zor before he decided to flee the country, with his wife Khawla, who was pregnant at the time and their daughter Zainab.
The young family arrived in Turkey ready to make their way to a new life in Europe on January 24, 2016. However, this was only the beginning of their arduous journey. They paid a Syrian smuggler to transport them across the sea to the Greek Island of Kos and spent five hours walking through the night to reach the Turkish coast.
Qais told of the horrifying first crossing – one of seven attempts the Khalaf family made before they reached Greece: “The first time we crossed in a boat that was designed for 40 people but the smugglers put 60 people in it. The boat started to fill with water and we became stuck.”
“For one hour there was silence. Then the women started screaming and saying prayers, and the children were crying. We were terrified. My wife was crying for my daughter,” Qais recalls.
The Khalaf family and other refugees played a cat and mouse game with the Turkish coast guards over the next few weeks whereby they would attempt to make a crossing, get pulled over by the coast guards get taken back to the coast, pay a fine of €25 and then get put on a bus to Istanbul where they would stay in the smugglers apartment before walking 5 hours back to the sea to attempt another crossing by boat.
Finally, on February 19, the family reached Greece safely. “At 3am we arrived on the boat. It was a lovely night. The sea was calm, there were no waves and the moon was full,” Qais tells the Dundalk Democrat.
The Syrian Army fully recaptured the Isis-held parts of Deir ez-Zor city (pictured above), by 17 November 2017 following a 3-year siege. The city has been largely destroyed.
The family began to make their way to Germany, but when they arrived at the border to Macedonia it was closed. “We stayed three months in a deserted area hoping the border would open again,” explained Qais.
The Khalaf's were forced to stay in Greece and were stuck in a military camp there for a further six months before they could register for a relocation programme. Another three months passed before they received a call from the Irish embassy.
Qais recalls: “Ireland choose us amongst the refugees. We did an interview with the Irish embassy from Greece.” They arrived in Dublin on March 23, 2017, after one year in Greece and the birth of their daughter Rosol on September 5, 2016.
The Syrian family knew nothing about Ireland before moving here. “After Ireland chose us, I read a lot about Ireland. I read about your history, the famine, Michael Collins,” says the 25-year-old.
The family was moved to a hotel in Ballyaghadreen in Co. Roscommon where they stayed along with 200 other Syrian refugees. They lived on a €20 allowance per week and tried to keep their two young children occupied in the cramped conditions, before being granted refugee status on the 4th of September 2017.
They finally arrived at their new home in the picturesque village of Carlingford on October 17, 2017 – after the Red Cross sourced a two-storey house for the family.
“We are happy now. We can cook food in our own home now and live like the Irish people live. The culture is very different here, but I respect the Irish habits and traditions. We feel very welcome in Carlingford. We are surrounded by helpful and nice people here," says Qais,
“People have been knocking on our door saying you are welcome here and asking if we need anything.”
And the friendly Syrian man has already made some close ties to the area.
“I have made some very good friends and one close friend in Carlingford. I ask him questions about jobs and life here. We have had some friends to our house and cooked Syrian food for them. Some even said it was better than Irish food!" Mr Khalaf says.
Qais's home city of Deir ez-Zor in Syria
The 25-year-old Syrian also has some kind words to say about the Irish people and notes that the Irish have empathy for the plight of refugees.
“In general the Irish people are friendly and warm. There are a lot of Irish diaspora around the world, and there is a lot of hardship in your history, so I think Irish people understand what it's like to be a refugee. They have empathy for us," observes Qais.
Whilst the family are keen to look to the future and embrace their new home, Qais still prays for his family and peace in his country. His mother, father, brother and sister were forced to leave the family home in Deir ez-Zor and flee to a desert camp four months ago.
He tries to keep in contact via Skype, but it can be difficult. “More than 40% of my home village has been destroyed – I have no idea if my family home is still there,” he explains.
Looking forward, the young Syrian man's immediate focus is to secure a job in the locality of Carlingford, so that he can support his family.
“I wish to get a job here to give back to the Irish community, get to know the culture more and get the Irish accent! I prefer to be busy. I will take a job working on anything and just keep improving. And after three years I will continue my studies in pharmacy or medicine,” Qais says,
“My daughters will go to playschool in Carlingford soon. My oldest daughter Zainab is already saying all of her colours and numbers in Arabic and English.”
After the adversity that this young family has faced, the Khalafs are eternally grateful to call Ireland their home.
“I'd like to thank the Irish Government and the Irish people because they have welcomed us into their country,” Qais concluded.