There are so many millions of people fleeing conflict, persecution and natural disaster that it is easy for society to see them as a faceless mass. But behind every cold statistic is a real person, full of hopes and fears.
Now, on World Refugee Day (June 20), one young refugee reveals his daunting journey to Ireland and how, with the help of a devoted foster mum and a state agency, he and his family were given a chance for a brighter future.
A FUTURE FREE FROM UPHEAVAL
Mirwais left war-torn Afghanistan when he was just 14 years of age, and he did so alone. The choice was simple, it was either do that or die.
“If I stayed, I’d be dead; that’s why my family told me to leave. I left my country alone because there were fears for my safety and my mom and dad could not work. My mom also had a heart problem, so it’s very hard for her to go,” he says.
“I went to Helmand by car and then from there I went to Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia and a lot of different countries in Europe, through Europe and I came to Ireland,” he says.
For two years he was shunted from once place to the next, unable to lay down roots; never knowing where or when he could begin to think of a future free from upheaval.
It is daunting to think of an adult taking on such a trip, never mind a young person who could neither speak the languages of the countries he passed through, nor understand their cultures.
“It was like a nightmare for me. In my point of view a dog lived better than me. It is not easy for a person to leave their family behind.”
By the time he reached Ireland, in 2017 he had just turned 17 years old. Having passed through so many countries, Mirwais didn’t know what to expect. He was confused and a little suspicious, too, when he moved in with his foster mum, Naomi.
“When I arrived here, I was scared, everybody here explained to me about the family, how it works here but I couldn’t trust, I was so scared,” he says.
“When I came here and a few days spent with Naomi, I thought she might be a spy after Immigration or something like this.”
TRUST & SUPPORT
But over time he trusted her. Naomi offered a chance for a real future.
“She is like a family for me. She is like a real mom for me. The things that I achieved in Ireland so far, all credit goes to Naomi, not just only myself,” says Mirwais.
“She helped me out through everything, passed my Leaving Cert, graduated well and then I went to my college, got admission there – and special thanks to Tusla, they helped me out with my life and about my family members as well.
“Every single step she was forward for me there and standing always beside me. She was saying I am always here if you need anything, which I can’t thank her for enough, that she did that for me.”
Mirwais is now 22 and, according to Naomi, is a different person to the tired, almost hopeless, teenager she first met.
“He has become confident, he knows his way around, he’s educated, he’s well able to talk and, yeah, he’s great,” she says.
“I think I wanted him to be afforded every opportunity that any Irish child would have and that I was going to do my best to support him to have equal access to education and opportunities.
“I wanted to help with the humanitarian crisis. This, I felt, was my contribution, this was how I could contribute and help some young people,” she adds.
FOSTER CARER – ‘VERY REWARDING’
And Naomi points out that whatever she has given Mirwais has been paid back in so many ways.
“Being a Tusla foster carer has been probably the best decision I have ever made in my life. It’s been very rewarding, fulfilling, challenging at times but I can’t imagine my life now not fostering. It’s just been a great experience. I can’t imagine Mirwais not being in my life.”
Two months ago, things took an even more positive turn for him when his mother, father and 14-year-old brother Abdullah arrived in Ireland after Mirwais successfully applied to the Department of Justice for reunification with his family.
Tusla supports refugees in foster care by helping them with application forms and accompanying them to interviews, if required.
The Agency also helps refugees’ families by putting them in touch with charities who can provide funding for visa applications. Tusla also assists them in finding accommodation and connects them with charities who can give them extra clothing, should it be needed.
After almost eight years apart, Mirwais and his family are reunited. They now live in emergency accommodation close to Naomi’s home in Wicklow.
“I hope one day that we can live together,” Mirwais says.
In the meantime, though, as they are being accommodated extremely close to where Mirwais lives with Naomi, where they can visit every day and eat together.
The family gather there on almost a daily basis and have struck up a bond with their son’s ‘Irish Mammy’.
“They say prayers for Naomi,” he says. ‘They are really happy that she helped me so much.”
The family reunification has brought not only joy, but added responsibility for Mirwais, and Naomi supports him in this.
“It was very emotional at the airport,” says Naomi, who works currently as a support worker for Ukrainian and previously with Syrian refugees being resettled in Ireland. It’s also been full-on as Naomi has now also taken on the role of helping Mirwais’ family integrate into Irish society.
“I don’t speak Pashto, the family’s native language, so Mirwais must interpret everything. I’m teaching the family how things work in a typical Irish home – where people eat, how they eat, what’s appropriate, what isn’t.
“I supported Abdullah to enrol in a local secondary school and he will also attend summer school in Dublin to continue learning English. His parents attend English-language classes with KWETB (Kildare and Wicklow Educational Training Board) in Wicklow and they participate in conversational English classes with Fáilte Isteach once a week.
“I’m encouraging them all to familiarise themselves with Irish society,” she adds.
The future is looking brighter for the family. Mirwais has completed two years of Professional Cookery and one year undertaking a Restaurant and Bar Management course, which included Barista skills.
“I love cooking. Hopefully, I will work as a manager or as a chef,” he says.
Meanwhile, his younger brother, Abdullah, is getting to grips with learning English.
It’s a long way from the life-and-death struggle in Afghanistan. Maybe a time will come when Mirwais and his family decide to return to their homeland, even if only for a visit. For one person, though, there really is no going back…
“My life has changed in a very positive way - I think by becoming a foster carer,” says Naomi. “I love what I do, and I can see myself doing it until I’m old and grey.”
If you are considering becoming a foster carer, see fostering.ie for details.