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Aleppo family overwhelmed by warm welcome in chilly Northern Ireland

By Rebecca Black

Published 28/10/2016

Ali Soda and his wife Hasnaa Ramadan
Ali Soda and his wife Hasnaa Ramadan
Ali Soda and his wife Hasnaa Ramadan

As Northern Ireland prepares to welcome a new group of Syrian refugees, one of the first families to arrive here last year tell how they fled just days before their home in Aleppo was destroyed.

Ali Soda, his wife Hasnaa Ramadan and their four children arrived in Belfast last December in the first wave of refugees to come to Northern Ireland.

They had been living in very basic accommodation in Lebanon having been forced to flee their apartment with only a handful of their belongings.

Now a year on, their children are thriving at local schools and their 11-year-old son Ahmed is even playing gaelic football for Antrim, but with family still living in Aleppo, the television news has become too painful to watch.

Ali worked as a digger driver in Syria and his wife was a home-maker.

However, life started getting steadily worse in Syria before the family - who had never been out of the country before - decided to leave.

"Things started off slowly, people on the streets, rioting, things starting to progress badly," explained Ali.

"Then one day we were at a gathering and a friend got a phone call to say his wife and son had died after a wall fell on them."

Hasnaa said she had pulled her children out of their school because it kept getting attacked, and said it was the children and trying to secure a better future for them that made the family decide to leave in the summer of 2015.

They described living conditions for refugees in Lebanon as "very difficult" and then feeling very afraid when they were told they were going to Belfast as they had never heard of it before and were concerned about the language barrier.

The cold was also a shock when they walked off the airplane, but they said they felt overcome by the warmth of the welcome they received.

"The main reason we came was for the children," said Ali.

"At the beginning it was frightening for them, my daughter went outside to play with the other children in the street, but she came back crying. I asked her why, and she said because she couldn't understand what anyone was saying," he said.

"Now they all love school, and she has picked up the language so well, she now talks too fast for me to understand her."

The kids have also adapted well to local food, and have developed a love of fish fingers and potatoes.

However, the transition was harder for Ali and Hasnaa, who miss their family and friends.

The turning point came when a group of neighbours knocked on their door. The first time the language difference proved a barrier, but they came back with a translator and have now helped the couple integrate into the community.

They are also full of praise for the support they have received from the local community, and even how the schools their children attend have taken care to ensure their dietary requirements as Muslims are respected, making sure they receive Halal meat.

However, the couple still have difficult days. Hasnaa's father was caught up in an attack recently in Aleppo and left with a head injury.

"Also, my sister lives in a part of Syria where they are not allowed to leave, her son is badly malnourished; she tried to make a sugary drink to help him but she couldn't get sugar, it is very worrying for us," she said.

Two more groups of Syrian refugees are expected to arrive in Northern Ireland before the end of the year under the Government's Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, which was launched by David Cameron.

This is expected to bring to almost 400 the total number of refugees resettled here.

Belfast Telegraph

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