Marwan knows he is one of the lucky ones. For four years, he, his wife, Rodina, and their three daughters, watched as war ripped Syria apart. For four years, the family did not openly celebrate Easter or Christmas.
As Christians, Marwan knew they were living their lives with targets on their heads. He remembers a time when religion didn’t matter. There were no differences between us, he says. Now, the Syria he once knew is unrecognizable.
“They always said to us: Do not go to church, we make explosion, we send mortar attack.” There were countless days when his daughters could not go to school for fear of death as the war threatened to encircle Damascus. “Many times I heard explosions and I would go to bring them from the school—and oh, my God, they were very tough days.”
“[ISIS was] always treating us badly, especially us as Christians, because we were unbelievers. First, they wanted us to be Muslims like them, and second they wanted us to pay—money or kill,” he says, referring to the jizya—a non-Muslim “tax” ISIS has been forcing Christians to pay in Syria in return for protection.
When the bombs began exploding near the offices where he worked as a civil engineer on the outskirts of the city, the family knew it was time to leave. They fled Syria and traveled to Ireland in April 2015. But while escaping war may seem like an ending, it is really a beginning—with the dream of rebuilding a normal life hampered by the bureaucratic roadblocks that appear at almost every turn.
* * *
Unlike so many fleeing Syria today, the family had a lifeline in Europe, a cousin who had been living in Ireland for ten years. It was a tight squeeze, but Marwan’s family of five joined his cousin’s family of seven and the 12 managed that way for a month. It wasn’t easy, but it was safe.
The family then moved to a “direct provision” center in County Mayo in the West of Ireland. Direct provision—a controversial method of dealing with asylum seekers in Ireland—has been branded “inhuman” and “degrading” by NGOs and migrant-support organizations. The system sees asylum seekers languishing in prison-like centers—often for years—before a decision is reached on their application.
Food is provided at set mealtimes, leaving residents feeling institutionalized and without agency or autonomy. Depression rates are up to five times higher in the centers than in the rest of Ireland. Critics of the system note that nothing about it mimics a natural living environment and advocates have expressed concerns for the well-being of children in particular. There are roughly 4,811 people currently in the system, one-quarter of them children. The average wait time is three years and eight months.