Almost a month has passed since Ahmad and I sat down to have our first – and only – “formal” interview, but a lot has happened since then. We hadn’t seen each other for two weeks in a row as he had appointments and was unfortunately not able to come to our meetings. He had a job interview, but was told to wait another six months until his English would have improved. Another six months of waiting, another six months of boredom, another six months of too much time to think.
When we talk about the outcomes of the project (MELLIE - Migrant English Language, Literacy and Intercultural Education) during our last meeting, he tells me that the first time we met when our group came to visit the residence, he felt very lonely. He felt lonely because he realized he doesn’t know anybody, and he missed his family who was not with him even though the room was crowded with people. He says he felt very shy at the beginning, not only during that meeting but in general with all Irish and European people. He remembers his first steps on Irish soil were very happy, people carried his bags for him and everyone was extremely friendly. I remember, too, that he seemed very shy, very cautious but also very sincere. This impression has not changed since our first encounter. He discloses to me that back in Syria he would never speak to women, it was not a common thing to do. But here he does, he is talking to me, he is talking to everyone, and he really likes that. He admits he was a bit nervous before attending the meetings, because he did not know what to expect and he did not know what I liked – something we share in common. I was equally nervous before the meetings, not knowing what I’d be able to say, not knowing what would happen, and not knowing what appropriate behaviour is in such a context. It seems as if this is maybe something we all, as humans, share in common: the fear of the unknown - the “other” - the fear of being inappropriate and feeling out of place, and basically the fear of embarrassing ourselves. Maybe it is all the more important to swallow this feeling, accepting it as a state that can only pass if we allow ourselves to be thrown into cold waters.
On reflecting upon the first time they visited our university, he tells me it made him recollect his own uni back in Aleppo, which was giant compared to DCU (Dublin City University)– there were 2000 first-year-students when he started his studies. He enjoys being in a university setting again, getting to see the campus, meeting people. “I met nice friends and I also learned to work collectively,” he says, “and I would like to be in the same university and have something like these friends.” The past few weeks also offered a great opportunity to get away from the residence. “I feel like I’m in jail,” he tells me. Only once a week there is a free bus that goes into town, otherwise public transport costs about €15 to go to the city and back - hardly affordable when you have to live of €19.10 per week. Hardly bearable when you are young, curious and desperate to move forward with your life.
The previous week we had come together to watch a play, Eire: Land of 100,000 Welcomes, a performance by students aged 15-17 addressing the topic of refugees and Ireland’s stance towards it. The act was an artistic mix of audio-visuals, dance acts and monologues critically exposing the underlying hypocrisy in Irish society and the helplessness when facing the current catastrophes that force people to leave their homes. A difficult play to watch - especially when half of the people in the room are seeing their own traumatic experience recreated on stage. “The idea of the play was wonderful and I was pleased with the pictures presented at the beginning of the show,” Ahmad conveys to me, “but when they started to show the suffering of the refugees here and there, this caused me great sadness.” It must have been around the time when an overlarge image of the little boy Aylan Kurdi, who was washed up on the shore of Turkey, was projected on stage that my chest contracted and made it difficult to breathe. I decided to leave the room and not watch the play until the end. Ahmad was not able to find sleep that night either. “I did not sleep from this,” he tells me, “I did not want to think of this child. I say this because I have not forgotten. And I do not think I will forget the suffering.” The reason why I myself felt so upset during the play resulted from a mix of feelings that only afterwards and after a lot of contemplation became clear to me. The discomfort I experienced while watching the play oscillated somewhere between sadness, empathy, guilt, shame and helplessness. I was worried whether it was right to watch this play, which was originally designed to shock an Irish audience, or whether we may have triggered memories that not everyone was ready or willing to embrace. I still do not know. Every single person in the audience felt what cannot be described as anything but utter sadness. Like all air was sucked out of your chest. Like your heart crumbled into a rotten fruit, and your blood decided to flow a little slower. To my relief, Ahmad tells me that he has seen so much suffering in his life that something that happens on stage cannot really affect him anymore. He used to work as an ambulance driver and has seen hundreds of people die, or lose limbs, bleeding, crying. “I have seen so much grief,” he says, “and there are people who know very well what people have suffered because of the despicable war. But I would like to say something of a joke,” he continues. “In ten or fifteen years this will be written in the stories, and people will think it’s a fantasy.”
Thank you, Ahmad, for sharing your story with me. Thank you for helping me understand. And thank you for spreading such hope.