Health and Fitness

‘My home country is still Syria but my country is now Ireland’

When Muhammad Achour first moved to Dublin’s Clonliffe Road and saw the crowds gathering for matches at Croke Park he was transported back to his own childhood in Aleppo. It reminded him of the nights he spent with his older brother watching football matches from his grandparents’ fifth-floor apartment which was directly across from the city’s large soccer stadium.

“I loved soccer and my older brother Kinan had the same passion. We went every Friday to watch matches for free. We used to gather just the boys and men in my grandfather’s house. But my grandmother also loved the Al-Ittihad club.”

More than two decades later, Achour watched from the window of his Dublin home as families emerged from Croke Park after GAA matches. “It is a lovely scene – people coming to the stadium happy and wearing jerseys of their loved club, the two groups of fans walking beside each other, kids and adults.”

However, the buzz around the Dublin stadium always felt somewhat bittersweet, admits the Syrian architect. It was yet another reminder of how much he missed his older brother.

Achour grew up in a happy, sport-obsessed household in Aleppo in the 1980s and 1990s. His father, a former champion gymnast and swimming pool diver, taught sport in the local high school while his mother also taught sport to primary school children.

I was nervous about meeting the students but they were so lovely and respectful and the DCU staff were so supportive

Achour loved maths and geometry at school and considered studying engineering but eventually opted for architecture after passing the necessary exams to get into the five-year degree course. After university he registered at the Syrian Engineers Syndicate as an architect and spent three years interning before becoming a fully qualified architect. Along with his architecture work, he also lectured at a private university and completed a master’s in the city of Homs.

Muhammad Achour, a Syrian architect who came to Ireland in 2015 and is now a teaching assistant in DCU at the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Muhammad Achour, a Syrian architect who came to Ireland in 2015 and is now a teaching assistant in DCU at the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

When the war broke out, Achour was living at home with his parents in an apartment not far from where some of the worst of the violence in Aleppo unfolded. “We stayed at home. We couldn’t go out, especially at night, and closed all the windows and curtains. We had a lack of drinkable water, no electricity, no internet. Life was about surviving within these difficult circumstances. A lot of neighbours moved to a safer place, but my father refused to leave his home.”

Achour’s brother Hussam was already living in Ireland when the conflict began, having moved to Dublin in 2006 after securing a scholarship to do a PhD in mechanical engineering abroad. Hussam chose to study at DCU following the advice of the boys’ uncle Osama who moved to Ireland in the early 1990s to study.

In 2014, after two years of violent clashes in Aleppo, Achour secured permission to come to Ireland through the Irish Government’s Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme (Shap). Hussam had planned to apply for his whole family to come to Ireland, but Achour’s mother believed the application would be more likely to succeed if only one person was sponsored. “My mother was afraid I’d be taken to military service and she thought the visa office might refuse my application and accept her instead. She didn’t want to leave me in danger.”

Having learned English from his older brother Kinan, and through watching American TV shows such as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a teenager, Achour hoped to find work straight away. He sent his architecture CV to his brother the day his visa was confirmed which Hussam forwarded on to a number of organisations including DCU. Soon after, Achour was offered a job as a teaching assistant at the university.

Achour arrived into Dublin Airport on a Friday in February 2015 and four days later he started his new job. “I was nervous about meeting the students but they were so lovely and respectful and the DCU staff were so supportive.”

“With Shap you are eligible to work and study but with no access to social welfare. So in advance I wanted to come and be an active person within society – live, work, share, volunteer, be active, contribute positively to building and developing this country.”

Achour spent his first three months in Ireland living with his brother and then found his own place. The following year, Achour’s brother applied for his parents and sister to come to Ireland but the application was refused. He appealed and was refused again. Finally, Achour’s parents and younger sister secured visas to come to Ireland in 2019 under the State’s Humanitarian Admission Programme (Ihap).

When a second round of the Ihap scheme launched in late 2018, Achour made one final application for his brother Kinan to come to Ireland, with his wife and children. Achour’s niece Bana was born with a hole in her heart and underwent bypass surgery as a child. The family hoped the Government would provide a pathway to Ireland where they could be with their loved ones and secure better medical care for Bana. However, Kinan’s wife and children were considered extended family under the scheme and their application was refused.

“We believed we had a strong case, we explained about Bana’s health problems and that living through the war was very difficult for her. But they just said there is a rule you cannot apply for a full family, just a single person.”

Achour’s family are still praying the Government will review their application. He says Bana is “surviving” by focusing on her studies and her violin practice.

Achour still teaches at DCU and has also completed a master’s in architectural science at UCD – an achievement he says was only possible thanks to the support of staff at the university’s school of architecture who helped secure the funding to cover his fees. During his master’s, Achour also founded the Places of ARcture (Art + Architecture) network which engages with local communities and refugees through art and architecture.

Achour says he feels particularly grateful to his DCU colleague and mentor Frank Byrne, who encouraged him to pursue his passion for architecture and helped him make connections in the Irish architecture world.

He has also delivered workshops to transition year students at a number of schools through the Irish architecture foundation. Working with these “creative and talented students” reminds him of Bana who is now 15. “I believe in the power of the young to make change in our cities and communities. I hope one day, Bana will be one of the students who participates in the ‘Imaginary Public Space’ programme here in Ireland.

“My home country is still Syria but my country is now Ireland. I still hope I can visit Syria again someday but I want to keep my home here.”

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