I had the pleasure last week of meeting Ayman Belli, a refugee from Syria, at an event run by the educational charity SUAS as part of their 8×8 Festival in UCD last week. Ayman is 25 years old. He came to Ireland when he was relocated from Lebanon, where he had spent two years in hiding after escaping prison and probable death in the Syrian capital, and his hometown, Aleppo.
Ayman is just four years older than I am, but he has seen much more danger and death than I hope ever to see. His family is currently scattered across Europe, in whichever countries they could get to safely. His brother made a horrific trip on a dinghy across the Mediterranean. Five of his cousins and many of his friends have died in the war. These are problems that I hope that neither you nor I ever have to face.
Ayman talks about the dangers he has faced casually, and he laughs easily. His face lights up when we chat about his two children; his youngest daughter is just two months old. He and his wife have been studying and working while in Ireland, and they can only hope that the family and friends they have that still live in Syria will be safe.
Ayman is just one of thousands of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and many other countries suffering under dictatorial leadership or invasion by terrorist groups. It is nearly impossible for us, students at a wealthy Irish university, to imagine what it must be like to have to escape from your home in the dead of night with only the clothes on your back. No matter what our family or financial situation, we have never been in such life-threatening danger from a regime as to have no other option but to run from our own country with little hope of returning in the near future. We are extremely privileged to live where we do, and it’s important that we recognise this.
Perhaps the most important thing that we as educated university students are able to do is to be informed about this crisis, to realise how lucky we are and to talk about it. The cynical and distrustful attitude held by more than a few commentators towards the refugee crisis and those who are risking their lives to come to Europe and Ireland needs to be overturned. This needs to happen in order to create a society that is not just accepting, but supportive of these people who come to Ireland for help. Comments that we are just emerging from a recession, that it is difficult to integrate these people into our society, and other such selfish remarks form the only battle that Ireland needs to fight. Lebanon has taken in four times as many refugees as the entirety of the European Union – think how small a percentage this leaves Ireland to host.
Students can play a major part in this change of attitude. We form part of the lucky minority in the world that have been able to progress to third level education in a relatively wealthy country, and as such we have a platform to speak from. Ayman was one of the lucky ones in that he managed to escape the Syrian regime; one only needs to look at the online homepage of the independent news organisation, Syria Deeply, which covers the Syrian crisis in-depth, to realise how many people haven’t been so lucky. As students, we are in a position to educate ourselves about this crisis and to help in the change of attitude necessary for Ireland.
It was at a SUAS event this week discussing the Syrian refugee crisis that I met Ayman. SUAS is an Irish educational development charity which is making strides towards improving literacy and education in Ireland as well as countries such as Kenya and India. It also runs courses in colleges and universities across Ireland to teach students about global issues. They hold society status in many of these universities and have been campaigning, unsuccessfully, for society status in UCD for some years now. You can look up more about what they do on www.suas.ie for the time being, but hopefully they will regain their society status in UCD within the coming years, so that they can continue to educate students about the necessity to be aware of what’s going on in the world around us.