A New Beginning, by Aindrias O’Sullivan: Writing Competition Winners
2015-09-01 14:14:32 -

The first-prize-winner in the 14-17 group from Ashbourne, Co Meath presents a vivid but hopeful account of the refugee experience through the eyes of a Syrian child



Muhammad al-Walid arrived in Dublin in the winter of 2014, one of many Syrians to flee the brutal civil war made worse by the swift rise of Daesh, known to the west as Islamic State. His parents were poor shopkeepers with little incentive to stay, and although his father had trained as a doctor in Aleppo University, there was no work to be had here. His uncle Rashid was a soldier in the Free Syrian Army, and it was he who arranged for the family to flee, and also brought a group of FSA soldiers to keep them safe; in any case, the FSA itself was on the brink of collapse, and Rashid had decided to cut his losses and flee as well.


The air was cold and sharp as they arrived in the port of Latakia, in theory controlled by government forces, but in practice the confluence of several opposing factions.


“Everything’s going to be OK,” Rashid would say again and again, making a circle with his finger and thumb, and repeating that odd expression which he had apparently heard from an American advisor in the FSA.


Both Muhammad’s parents and Rashid had been adamant that they would not be going to the massive refugee camps in Turkey; they wanted a better life, in Europe. “Europe” was another one of Rashid’s expressions. He would say it in a low whisper, as if it were a secret, or something to be revered. A new life, a new start.


The family, along with the soldiers, made their way through the tangled streets, pushing and shoving their way through the throng, with the soldiers having to raise their weapons to speed things up a little. Muhammad felt tiny amidst the heaving tide of humanity, having lived in a small town his whole life. His parents, who both came from Aleppo, described vividly the sheer size of a city, but only now did he realise the truth of his parents words.


They came to the dock, where a fishing trawler was being boarded by the second by migrant after migrant.


And Muhammad saw the sea in its entirety.


The city was one thing, but this frightened Muhammad. An immense, flat expanse of water, going on for ever and ever. He gripped his mother’s hand tightly.


The soldiers, with reluctance, handed the weapons over to a man in a van who had appeared suddenly beside them. Muhammad guessed the man was also FSA. Just as suddenly, the man drove off, taking the guns out of reach of the government troops.


Rashid paid the money to the captain. “Take us to Spain,” he said. It was a lot of money, so the captain nodded.


Muhammad asked where Rashid and the soldiers had got so much money. His parents simply said that they needed a lot of money to get to Europe.


They got on the ship, and the long journey began. Muhammad watched as the harbour grew ever smaller and more distant. There was nothing but water now.


They made frequent stops along the journey to refuel and let other passengers off at their destination. This meant little to Muhammad, who was constantly seasick. In any case, it was not Spain, which Rashid said was on the other side of the sea.


Days passed, blending into each other. Muhammad began to get used to the sight of the sea, which had previously terrified him. The ship was cramped and tight, so he spent more and more time simply looking over the side to get fresh air, even if it would eventually make him sick.


Sometimes, looking at the water, he saw little creatures underneath. He vaguely remembered from school that they were called fish. Muhammad spent the rest of the journey trying to spot as many different fish as he could. One day, he had seen a massive fish leap out of the water, not far from the boat. Rashid said they were called dolphins, and were not fish, which didn’t make any sense, but Rashid usually knew what he was talking about.


Their arrival at Spain came as a surprise; Muhammad had concentrated on fish for the rest of the journey, not paying attention to where they stopped.


“Everyone out,” said the captain. This was the last port of call. The passengers filed out onto the dock, and stepped into Europe for the first time. Rashid said this city was called Algeciras. They would be taking another ship very soon, to a place called Ireland. Muhammad wasn’t exactly pleased at the thought of another long journey, although Algeciras seemed untouched by the fabled wealth of Europe. He thought it wasn’t much different from Latakia.


They soon took another ship, this one being much bigger and more modern. It was less cramped, and swayed less in the water too. However, being taller, Muhammad found it difficult to see any fish.


The journey to Ireland was much worse, in fact. There were almost constant storms, so the passengers spent most of the journey huddled inside, listening to the winds howl and shriek, with the waves slamming into the side of the ship. Muhammad had a sudden, vivid image of the ship sinking, and being swallowed by the vast, cold sea. He shivered.


When they arrived in Ireland, Muhammad was shaking all over. He didn’t want to go on any ship again, even if it meant never going home.


He shivered again as the stepped off onto yet another dock; unlike Latakia or Algeciras, Dublin was as cold as when they had been out to sea. A light drizzle was falling. Rashid said that Ireland was the exact opposite of Syria; it was very rich, and always peaceful. But Muhammad also realised where Syria was hot and dry, Ireland was cold and wet. He could not imagine spending his life here.


They were hurried, bleary-eyed, through room after room, all of which were far too brightly lit, which hurt his eyes. Only Rashid spoke English fluently, so he was asked all the questions. Rashid had taught Muhammad scraps of English over the two journeys, mostly basic phrases such as “Hello” and “How are you”, although he found this conversation difficult to follow.


They were made to sign papers, Rashid was asked more questions.


Finally, they were let out into a large room where Muhammad could see many other families. Rashid was still back with the Irish officers, trying to get the soldiers through, which was taking a bit more time.


Muhammad repeatedly asked his parents what was going to happen now. They told him they were getting a place to live and he would be enrolled in an Irish school in three months’ time.


“Be careful,” his mother said. “Europe is very rich, but they do not like Muslims very much. They are all Christians here.”


“Then why are we here?” Muhammad asked.


“Because we have nowhere else to go.” 


With that, Rashid arrived, along with the former soldiers. “Time to leave,” said Rashid, and off they went.


Six months had passed. Muhammad and his family had a place to live somewhere in Dublin. Rashid also had a small apartment, several doors away. Muhammad’s father was now starting work as a doctor, having finally got his licence after several difficult weeks. His mother was also working, in the local shop. She had studied at Aleppo (it was where his parents had met) for something called photography, and it was in Ireland that she was able to get a good camera, with the money they would earn.


It was a Monday morning, and Muhammad was dressed in the strange-looking uniform that he would have to wear every day to school. His mother gave him his schoolbag, stuffed full of books, and he walked out the door.


He walked down two flights of stairs, and he only needed to go straight down the road to his left, and the school was there; an ugly, squat, grey building, already swarming with cars, children and their parents. Already it was starting to rain. It rained quite a lot here.


He came in through the front door of the school, to see almost as many people as he ha seen in Latakia, only here they were all children. He felt bewildered. They looked like they knew exactly where they were going, chatting excitedly amongst themselves and hurrying to their classes.


“Are you OK there? You look a bit lost.”


The use of Rashid’s favourite expression caught his ear, and he turned around to see a kindly looking woman, a bit older than his own mother. She wore large round glasses and wore a blue cardigan patterned with white roses.


“Hello,” said Muhammad. “My name is Muhammad.” He felt absurdly proud at pronouncing the words correctly.


“Well, it’s lovely to meet you, Muhammad,” said the woman. “My name is Sarah, but most pupils know me as Ms Murphy. Now, let’s try and find where your class is.”


They went into a room Ms Murphy called Reception, where she talked (rather too fast for Muhammad to discern) to another woman sitting at a desk.


“Area 1, Class 5B,” Ms Murphy said to Muhammad after they left Reception. “We’re lucky it’s so near! Getting through the school can be an absolute nightmare, believe me.”


Muhammad nodded along, and the walked a down a corridor, which was rapidly emptying of students as they went to their respective classes.


“Well, here we are,” said Ms Murphy. They opened the door, where the class had already started.


The entire class turned to face him. Muhammad felt suddenly nervous, although he did see one, a girl, who looked Syrian to him.


“It’s the new student,” said Ms Murphy in a hushed voice to the teacher. “I’ll leave him to you.” She left, closing the door behind her.


“Hi there,” said the teacher. “My name is Ms Barry. I’ll be your teacher for Fifth Class. Everyone, this is Muhammad. Say hello, class.”


“Hello, Muhammad,” said the class.


“Why don’t you sit down beside Asmira? ” She motioned to the seat beside a girl.


Muhammad went over and sat down.


“Where are you from?” Asmira asked quietly, in Arabic. Amazingly, she had a Syrian accent.


“Syria,” he replied. “A small town – you wouldn’t know it.”


“Syria!” she said, sounding delighted. “I’m Syrian too! I used to live in Homs. We left two years ago.”


“Open your Active Maths 5, please,” said Ms Barry, sounding a little amused.


Muhammad opened the book, feeling a little better. He had expected to be all alone, the only Middle Easterner, let alone Syrian, in his class. But now he wasn’t alone, and although he knew it was going to be a long, rainy year ahead, the thought gave him some comfort. Perhaps there were other Muslims in the school he could meet.


Things were looking up after all.

TAGS : A New Beginning Aindrias O’Sullivan Writing Competition Winners
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