Rami Zahra is a Syrian refugee journalist who has settled in Ireland. His son, Joud, was the first Syrian refugee baby born in Northern Ireland. Along with his wife Shireen, Rami was forced to flee the war-torn middle-eastern country after enduring years of civil war. This brought with it indiscriminate bombings and shootings.
Rami’s job as a journalist exposed him to constant danger from the violence that was ravaging the country. The couple fled to Turkey in 2014. Two years later they found themselves arriving in Derry in the North of Ireland. They came along with 12 other families, under the UK government’s Vulnerable Person’s Relocation Scheme (VPRS).
The scheme resettles displaced Syrian refugees who are currently living in camps in countries neighbouring Syria. These include principally Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Individuals are assessed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the camps. If accepted under the scheme, applicants are granted five years humanitarian protection status. They will have access to employment and public funds and rights to family reunion comparable to other refugees. At the end of five years, if individuals are not able to return to Syria, they may be eligible to apply for resettlement in the UK.
Rami lived in the eastern-northern regions of Syria, the city of Qamishli. It’s on the borders with Turkey, Iraq and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The different denominations of the inhabitants of the region include Assyrians, Syriac, Armenians, Arabs, Kurds and Yezidis. Rami’s family comes from Arab origins. His grandfather was originally one of the founders of the modern city of Qamishli. There is a neighbourhood to this day called Al-Zahra neighbourhood. A number of the region’s elders at that time drew the city’s borders. They called it Qamishli in relation to a plant growing along the banks of rivers.
A simple society, everyone works in manual professions. In addition to growing wheat and barley, trade is popular due to the proximity to border areas in the far northeast of Syria. His father inherited, from his grandfather, the profession of manufacturing halva. It consists of two basic materials, sesame and sugar.
Early life was happy for Rami. “My childhood was the most beautiful time of my life”, he says. “In my childhood, I saw Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and all the provinces of Syria. This was due to my father’s love for travel and summer leisure trips. I was eagerly awaiting the summer to see a new city. At elementary school, I learned some of the ancient Aramaic languages, the languages spoken in the era of Jesus”.
Although he began to study law at university, Rami could not complete his degree as his father developed cancer. He had to take over running the family factory. From time to time he wrote about legal rights and matters for Syrian websites. With some friends, he established a special youth magazine that deals with youth issues. He was director of a youth forum that deals with issues of youth, politics, religions, rights and freedom, from 2007 to 2011, when war broke out.
Rami founded the first volunteer Syrian news website, Tahrir Souri, in 2013. “The site relies on citizen journalism”, he says. “Eyewitnesses convey what they see with pictures and videos away from party or religious affiliations”. This site was the first to publish one of the most heinous crimes against civilians in Syria, by Syrian regime forces. “We covered the events of Geneva II, which brought together representatives of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition to negotiate a UN-sponsored ceasefire in Switzerland. This on our own initiative and self-financing”, he says. “Some international institutes have relied on news reports from our website. These included the Tony Blair Institute, The Washington Institute, and Italian, French, American and German news channels.
Tahrir Souri is a media initiative designed to serve as a hub for Syrian journalists and citizen reporters. It’s aim is to provide an agenda-free platform for anyone interested in delivering unbiased and accurate eyewitness accounts and local developments regarding the Syrian conflict. Tahrir Souri covers the latest stories with an unwavering commitment to independent news reporting. “The word Tahrir in Arabic means both liberation and media editing”, says Rami. “We dedicate our efforts to liberate media reporting from any political affiliations. This allows the participants to be editors. They can then be involved in the process of shaping the future of Syrian media and journalism”.
Rami has worked as a Public Relations Manager for a Syrian civil organization whose office is in Turkey. This is an independent non-profit organization working to revitalize civil, administrative and development work. He has also volunteered with local organizations in Syria, documenting crimes committed in Syria against civilians by the Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition and terrorist organizations, from 2011 to 2014. He has been the Arabic language news editor for Syrian Arab websites since 2011.
Living conditions during the war were not easy. “I can’t describe that period well”, says Rami. “A real tragedy with killing, destruction, arrests, blackouts, lack of water, and theft. Murder gangs and terrorist organizations were widespread. It is a tragedy of our time, a tragedy that unfortunately does not end today. Truthfully, I do not wish anything that happens in Syria on anyone else”.
Dead bodies on streets
I saw dead bodies on the streets”, says Rami. “I could see how gangs stormed houses to steal them and they killed those living in the house. The prisons of the Assad regime were filled. My cousin was killed in this war by terrorist groups that we do not know. I also have journalist friends. To this day we do not know anything about them. They have been held in the prisons of the Assad regime for four years and more.
My city was besieged for a year and a half by the terrorist organization ISIS. Many assassinations took place. Water, electricity and gas were cut off from the city for more than 3 years. There was no bread. Any available food was expensive. Rapes took place. Many in the city were stealing homes and other establishments. There were car bombs, curfews and roadblocks cut the city into several parts.
Fleeing to Turkey
In mid 2014, Rami’s father got a warning to evict the family home within seven days. The house was close to the security headquarters of the Assad regime. They told him it was a ‘military necessity’. Rami says that when his father asked them where they were going to live, they told him: “If you do not find a place to live, tell us, we will secure an eternal place to live. They mean the grave – death”. His father closed the family factory and they were forced to flee the country. Rami says they packed some clothes. They started a cruel journey towards Turkey. “Most friends and relatives migrated outside Syria”, he says. “But there are a few of them who still live in Syria. They are trying to get out”. It was in Turkey that Rami met his wife, Shireen.
Arriving in Ireland
Rami and his wife arrived in Ireland in 2016. This was under the UK government’s resettlement scheme, VPRS. They stayed at a Red Cross centre in Belfast for a couple of days. A bus then took them to Derry with 12 other Syrian refugee families. They were accompanied by Red Cross officials, social workers and interpreters.
Life in Derry
Rami is overwhelmed by the reception he got since arriving in Derry. “The people of the city of Derry are very nice. After more than four years, it has not ceased to amaze me the generosity and reception we got. Even when we were in Turkey, the staff of the International Organization for Migration met with us. They began talking to us about the region, its history, its people, its economy and its geography – how the Irish are internationally known for their good manners and their love for peace. And we really found love, warmth and cute feelings that go beyond description!”, he says. The couple’s first child, Joud, was born shortly after their arrival.
“I would like to thank all those who supported us”, says Rami. “Organizations, government, individuals, media and ordinary people. I don’t think the words “thank you” are enough. However, I’m sure that our commitment to integrate into society, respecting law and culture and our hard work to develop our lives and contribute to the development of the economy will benefit this country and its people”.
Return to Syria?
I asked Rami if he would like to return to Syria if the war ends. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Before the war, I had intended to emigrate anyway, but things got more urgent after the war. I hope that peace will prevail in Syria and other regions experiencing wars and conflicts. For myself, I don’t wish to return and Derry is a city where our hearts cling to. It is quiet, unlike other noisy cities”.
Some of Rami’s many talents include independent blogging, writing on political and religious affairs. Some of his articles in English can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/2NJZAOf.
Rami is also a singer/songwriter who has written 14 songs about the Syrian revolution, from 2011 till 2018. He has also penned three songs from northern Syrian folklore which can be viewed at: http://bit.ly/2XaWLcl.
Hopes for the future
Rami hopes for a peaceful future for him and his family. “I aspire to live in peace”, he says. “We wish people in this world to live safely, away from the evil of war. I hope and strive to learn more of the language and search for job opportunities. Like all human beings, we want to live our lives in peace!” Hopefully, young Joud will never see the terror that his parents witnessed and the family will live in the peace that they deserve.