From Aleppo to Armagh - one Syrian family’s story

Article written by Gillian Halliday - Ulster Gazette Click here

A SYRIAN @ family, who were forced to flee their war-torn homeland as refugees, have thanked the people of the city for the warm welcome they have received as they mark their first year living in Armagh.

Civil engineer Issa Alissa and his wife, Lena and their three daughters, Maram (15), Lujain (7), Bisan (5) and their 12-year-old son, Mohamad were one of 13 families to arrive in Northern Ireland a year ago under the UK Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

They arrived from Turkey where like many of their fellow Syrians citizens, had become the country they fled to after forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those who oppose him began fighting in 2012. Engaged in the violence are also fighters from so-called Islamic State, who have attempted to captalise on the conflict by seizing control of huge swathes of the country.

Hailing from the city of Aleppo, which has been badly affected by the war, the family now have spent the past 12 months trying to re-establish their lives in Armagh. The children have enrolled in local schools while Issa and Lena are taking language classes. Despite their traumatic experiences, they say that they are extremely grateful for the support they have receive from local people.

”It’s beautiful here and the people have been so friendly,” says Lena.

More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict, and the family escaped with just their essential belongings and those of sentimental value when they fled their home, which has been reduced to a shell due to the fighting.

As they adapt to their new home, their minds and thoughts are with their loved ones who remained in Turkey, including Issa’s ill mother. As difficult as it was to say goodbye to close family members, Lena insists the priority was the safety of their four children.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy for them to start over again, especially in a country they knew very little about. Yet Lena, a former primary school teacher, says that the support shown from the local community has helped make the transition easier for them.

“When we first arrived here and we saw the welcoming nature of the people, with their smiling faces and how they welcomed us, we felt at ease and more relaxed. We didn’t know much about Northern Ireland but everyone was so friendly when we first arrived, and welcoming, with a smile on their faces”, she explains.

There are now over 500 refugees living in Northern Ireland, with the latest group of ten families - who have been relocated to Bangor, Dungannon, Belfast, Lisburn and Newry - arriving last month. Each family receives help from a consortium of community and voluntary groups in partnership with statutory organisations. Those who would like to offer support to families should contact Bryson Charitable Group by phoning 90 325 835 or

“PEOPLE are born, they grow up and build their lives only once. We’ve had to build our lives twice; once in Syria and then again here”.

Those are the words spoken by Issa Alissa as he reflects on his refugee journey from his war-torn homeland of Syria where he and his wife, Lena and their young family escaped from to Northern Ireland, which has been their home for the past year.

Issa, who was a civil engineer in Syria, and his family successfully applied to the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. They were one of 13 families who travelled from Turkey to Northern Ireland last July, all knowing almost nothing about the province.

Since then, the family have thrown themselves into settling in to life in Armagh, with Lena, who was once a primary school teacher back in Aleppo, volunteering as a classroom assistant. Their children, Maram (15), Mohamad (12), Lujain (7) and five-year-old Bisan all attend local schools, and Issa and Lena both attend language classes held in Lurgan twice a week. Speaking with the assistance of an interpreter they told the Ulster Gazette that life here is completely different to what they were used to back in Syria but they are extremely grateful that they are now safe.

“My life [before the civil war] in Syria was great. We had family, we had a house, we had jobs, so everything was great in Syria,” says Lena. “I used to work as an elementary teacher, my husband was an architectural engineer and he had two jobs. After we got married I became a housewife and stopped working. My husband was working two jobs and had an office.”

That stable, peaceful existance was shattered, however, when civil war broke out in Aleppo. “The trouble began at the start of the war, around the end of 2011, when the army and the air force started bombing the surrounding areas and life just stopped. There was no jobs, and there was no life and things just deteriorated from there.

“We decided to leave around 2013 after two years of war we realised that we can’t live a stable life so the major worries were for our kids. There was not much in the way of support for the children, there was no medicine and it was difficult getting a GP, so we decided to leave.” 

By June of that year, 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations, a figure that  rose to 250,000 in 2015. Like many of their fellow citizens, they fled to Turkey, leaving most of their possessions behind, taking only what was important to them, Their own home is now just a shell, with only the roof and walls still in tact, with everything else inside gutted, or taken. They’ve been sent pictures that show the extent of the damage; “Even the wiring in the walls is gone,” reveals Lena. 

“We were lucky though, we managed to escape with our car, a lot of people didn’t have that.”

Life in Turkey wasn’t easy for the family; the relocation meant finding a new home, new jobs and starting new schools. Issa’s mother, who also fled Syria, was in ill health with kidney failure and her condition worsened while they were in Turkey. Authorities recommended sending Issa’s mother overseas for treatment and subsequently they were notified that they had been successful in their UK relocation scheme, and Issa and Lena made the decision to accept. “After a year-and-half in Turkey, we took the only option available to us. At that time my mother-in-law’s condition got worse, and she thought about cancelling her application and eventually she decided to remain. There were two families originally that were going, my family and my sister and her husband as well, but she decided to remain with my mother-in-law. We left on our own.

“The main reason for travelling was for us, was thinking of the future of our kids. Of course it was really hard, my whole family’s in Turkey at the moment, my husband’s family is also in Turkey. We struggled to build a life there and the kids and family were learning the language there, so it was hard that we had to start all over again,” says Lena.

“To be honest we were really worried and afraid to start with. We didn’t have much information and we weren’t told much. We did some research of our own about the area, and the culture, however when we first arrived here and we saw the welcoming nature of the people, with their smiling faces and how they welcomed us, we felt at ease and more relaxed. We didn’t know much about Northern Ireland but everyone was so friendly when we first arrived, and welcoming, with a smile on their faces.

“At the start we were in a hotel for four days and that was really good because we were all together, and we were happy with that. And we noticed that everyone was friendly, smiles never really left their faces and that was great. After the four days we were moved into a house, and that was new to me and I started exploring [Armagh] on my own and because we were wearing the hijab [a headscarf] we were easily noticeable, so we could feel eyes on us. There was no trouble though, there were still people that were nice and said hello. Things got easier after that.”

”Everything is different here. But even in Turkey it felt very, very different to what we were used to Syria. Everything tastes different here, even the fruit and vegetables. If we need something specific we can go to the Halal store. Everything’s new but we’re adapting to that.”

Of course the weather here was one of the most obvious changes the family has experienced (“It rains a lot here, we not used to that, but we’re adapting”), and as the children experience their first school summer holidays in Northern Ireland, they are looking forward to becoming even more a part of the local community. Lena is keen to see her voluntary role develop into employment, while also studying part-time, while Issa is also applying for jobs. Maram will start studying for her GCSEs in September, while her younger brother and two sisters are settling in well at primary school.

“My younger children have picked up the language really quickly,” continued Lena, “and have got a lot of support from the school as well as the other parents, the community.”

The family say that the support shown by local people has been heartwarming, and Lena is keen to embed herself more in Armagh life. “I’ve started to learn English and want to expand on my social network, meet others,” adds Lena. “When I’m busy, I’m happy. After the kids got settled in, we got used to the area and I got settled and started learning English, I got to meet more people and have a wider social network, I do have that feeling that my social life is getting more established, which is important. I find that when I leave Armagh and the surrounding areas that I'm happy when I come back. It feels like home."

Of course the family miss their loved ones back in Turkey. A tearful Lena says they keep in touch frequently, and it is difficult to be apart, but again she stresses that she wanted her children to be safe. Watching distressing images of Syria on the news is also extremely upsetting; Lena says she doesn’t know if they’ll ever be able to return home again. She’s keen, however, that whatever happens, her children remain connected to their Syrian culture. Lena also wants to help other Syrian families settle in; in Armagh there are three families, with more in Craigavon and Banbridge, and help create a support network with fellow refugees.

“It’s important to me to meet with families who I can talk to and who my children can be friends with," explains Lena. "It good to meet with the other families at the language classes, sometimes it's not easy to see them outside of the classes because of the distances and other areas they live in."

Lena adds, "We're working to adapt in as short a period as possible, to make things easier for ourselves and ease the hardships that we’ve gone through. I’d like to thank the people here, they are very good and have been very accepting, accepting of others, different religions and ideas. I’m very happy so I’d like to say thank you to the people.”

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