By Claire Corrigan
When a young Syrian boy aged 12, was forced to flee his home town and his country, with his parents and two sisters, because of terrible casualties in the civil war that began there nine years ago, he little realised he would be in Ireland for Christmas 2020, trying to make a success of his own hairdressing business, and a great admirer of Irish people and of Ireland.
“I love Ireland,” the young Syrian, Alma Salmeh remarked, describing how he had been helped by “a lot of Irish people”. He had heard beforehand about Ireland and how friendly the people are, and wanted to come. “And it was true, the best people in Europe.”
The young man, now just 21, who opened his own barber’s shop two months ago, is trying very hard to make a living from it, so that in a few years, he can return to visit his family in Jordan, and whom he hasn’t seen for four years. “I phone my mother every day, and keep in touch, but I hope I can be able to go home in three years, to see my parents and two sisters,” he said, with tears in his eyes. He fought back tears as he talked about his parents, who encouraged him in every way, and wanted him to find work somewhere to carve out a life for himself, and be able to help them also.
“My mother sold her gold ring and we also saved some money and I got a visa and came from Jordan to Ireland. They wanted me to be able to start a life for myself and to be able to help them too,” he explained. “I came straight to Ireland,” he added. Alma stayed with a midlands family for a year and he says, they instilled within him the strength and self-belief he needed to follow his dream, although life was not easy.
The teenager landed in Ireland and he was put in the care of a family via TUSLA. “I stayed with the lady for a year. I was there with another fellow from Afghanistan and another guy from Syria, who is my friend. The family were lovely and she helped me a lot. I was learning to speak English at the time and going up and down to Dublin on the train every day. During wintertime, the lady would give me a lift to the train station and she treated me very well.”
After just a year in Ireland, Alma was keen to start a trade and support his family back in Jordan. “I wanted to start working quickly and help my family as quickly as I could.” The family had fled from their war-torn country when Alma was just 12 before spending a year at Za’atari refugee campin Jordan and then coming to Ireland for a new life at 17.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the story of the youngster who speaks passionately of his love for the family he has not seen in four years. He hopes to reunite with then upon gaining Irish Citizenship and saving up enough money to fly home for a visit.
Alma has opened a shop called Ali’s Barber Shop in his new home and his story of triumph over adversity, courage and dedication to his family, combined with a gentle but determined nature makes those who meet him feel supportive towards this young man.
From having to light a fire in order to keep warm at the infamous Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan to beating the odds by saving enough funds to come to Ireland and setting up his own business, it’s a story that touches the heart. He has been through great hardship since 2016, but, Alma refuses to dwell on the negatives and instead talks openly and passionately about his love for Ireland and the ways in which his life improved through the assistance he has met along the way.
Born in Syria and, along with millions of others, the family were displaced due to the Syrian civil war, a complex conflict involving several nations, rebel groups and terrorist organisations. It began as a nonviolent protest in 2011, but quickly escalating into full-blown warfare. Since the fighting began, more than 470,000 people have been killed, with over 1 million injured and millions more forced to flee their homes and live as refugees. “I was 12 years old when we fled from Syria to Jordan and lived there for five years with my family.”
He described the discord in his hometown of Daraa as “very bad” – unsurprising since the town became known as the “cradle of the revolution” after protests at the arrest of 15 boys from prominent families for painting graffiti with anti-government slogans. This sparked the beginning of the uprising. “We walked to Jordan from my town which is close to the border,” he explained.
The family headed to Za’atari refugee camp, in northern Jordan, along with thousands of other Syrians, more than half of them children. Since 2012, the camp, divided into 12 districts, has grown from a collection of tents to a semi-permanent city. At its peak, it housed around 150,000 Syrian refugees, becoming the fourth-largest city in Jordan.
Alma, who has two sisters, said life at the camp was challenging, with no heating facilities – meaning families had to rely on blankets and fires to stay warm. “The camp was difficult. It was a different life to where we had come from. Each family stayed in a tent. It was very cold in wintertime – there was no heater or anything like that.
It was a hard time,” he recalls. After staying at the camp for a year, Alma’s father found work and the family moved into the city. “My father started to work and we moved and found a small place to stay and I helped my father at work. He was selling fruit. I was around 13 or 14 at that time.”
When he turned 18, he had no option but to leave the family he was staying with and make his own way. He spent a short time in the capital. “I was in Dublin with another family for two weeks and then I came back to the midlands. I love it and all my friends are here and I spend a nice time. Everyone helped me here.” He looked into enrolling in a course through the Social Welfare Office, but when he was informed that the duration of the programme would be one year, he opted to train himself as a barber.
“I wanted to start work and earn something as soon as possible so I could help my family back home. I was going every week to the barbers to cut my hair to see how he was doing it. I was going to the local barber beside the bridge. I made friends with him and he told me he would teach me. I watched YouTube every day about how to cut hair.” It was a tough time for Alma, who, at this stage, found himself homeless.
Homeless for six months
“I was homeless for six months. During that time, I went every day to Dublin, where my friend had opened a barbershop, to learn how to cut hair and came back at night. Slowly, I was doing a little bit. After six months, my friend closed his shop in Dublin. He came back to the midlands and I continued to learn from him there. He has now opened his own shop in Galway.” Alma then decided that it was time for him to try to set up his own shop.
“I was walking in the town and I walked past the shop and saw it was for rent. I said to my friend that we would ask how much the rent was and who could I get help from to open the shop. We went to see the landlord and he said it was €650. I asked a friend to lend me the money and did the contract.” He decorated the shop himself to save money before opening around two months ago. He has been building a solid customer base since.
“I have had friends and customers from the other barbers who come to me. I hope to build it over time.” While he has been praised for his efforts in trying to better himself and help his family, it’s clear Alma’s feet are on the ground and his unassuming nature comes through as he speaks about his deep love for his family. “I have a friend who says to me I’m great for doing the business but I had to do something.
My family have pushed me to do good,” an emotional Alma said. “I have not seen my family in four years. It’s a long time. I have applied for Irish Citizenship so when I get that, then I will try and see them for a month and a half. I applied in June.” When asked how he feels about those who are against refugees coming to Ireland, Alma said this has not been his experience.
“A lot of Irish people helped me. I wanted to come to Ireland. I could have gone anywhere but Ireland has the best people in Europe, so I came here,” the young man concluded. We wish him well.