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Ihsan Baleed fled war-torn Syria as teenager for new life in NI and tragically lost his inspirational dentist father in an accident in Lisburn... yesterday this remarkable young man graduated from Queen's

When 22-year-old Ihsan and his family left the devastated city of Aleppo seven years ago, he had few possessions and spoke little English. Billy Weir hears his amazing story

Ihsan Baleed shows his QUB degree in Computer Science with his mother Abir and sister Nadin
Ihsan Baleed shows his QUB degree in Computer Science with his mother Abir and sister Nadin
A delighted Ihsan and his mum
Proud day: Ihsan Baleed celebrates with his mother Abir, sisters Salam (far left) and Nadin and brother Hamza
Ihsan after his graduation
Ihsan Baleed and his father Mahfouz

By Billy Weir

With the graduation season now in full swing, those proudly swooping off stage with their degrees safely tucked under their robed arms will have their own tales to tell.

Few, though, while making small talk on the manicured lawns in front of Queen's University's hallowed halls, will have a story that even comes close to the one Ihsan Baleed has to share.

Yesterday the 22-year-old's smile beamed brighter than the glorious midsummer day that greeted his awarding of a 2:1 in Computer Science and the first steps about to be taken on his chosen career.

However, while there have been many smiles since the Lisburn man embarked on his journey, there have been tears, horror and tragedy to endure, too.

Ihsan and his family fled the torturous conditions of war-torn Aleppo in Syria seven years ago, the then teenager joining his mum and dad, and three siblings, at the start of what they hoped was a new and brighter life in Co Antrim.

He had little more than the clothes on his back and a smattering of English at his disposal, but found hope and incredible support from the local community, with Wallace High School giving him an outlet for his talents that may otherwise have been lost if he had remained in Syria.

Ihsan featured in the Belfast Telegraph four years ago when he notched up two A*s and a B in his A-levels with plans to attend Queen's University Belfast, just as his grandfather had done half a century previously.

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However, fate was to take a cruel twist when his father, Mahfouz, was tragically killed in a collision in Lisburn in March 2016, when cycling to work at a local factory. Mahfouz had worked as a dentist in Syria and was hoping to practice once again here in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the community in Lisburn, touched by the story of how he had worked in a factory to support his family while he strived to get back to the career he loved, started a funding campaign to help him do that.

Tragically, he didn't live to see that dream come to fruition, nor proudly watch his eldest child collect his degree. But Ihsan, despite all he has been through, knows that his father would have been an immensely proud man yesterday.

"It's difficult graduating without my father by my side, as I know he would have been so proud of me," he says.

"He was delighted to see me win a place at QUB. We all miss him and think about him every day.

"I'd like to thank my mum for her strength and support over the past few years. I'm very lucky to have a strong family, great friends and to have been supported through my education here in Northern Ireland."

Mum, Abir, has been through a lot. That doesn't really even scratch the surface of her story, as she forged a path for the family to leave their homeland and start a new life in Northern Ireland. Her mother was born in Belfast and so the family were able to secure Irish passports.

Abir led the way and was then joined by her four children - Ihsan, his sisters Salam (21) and Nadin (9) and brother Hamza (16) - travelling through Turkey before coming to Northern Ireland in July 2013. Her husband joined them a few months later once he had been granted a visa.

"We've been through so much but I know that my late husband would be so proud of Ihsan, especially as he has already secured a job in computer programming in Johnston Controls in Holywood," the proud mum adds.

"We are so thankful to Wallace High in Lisburn for making us feel so welcome in the community and helping us settle into Northern Ireland.

"Teachers from the school took Ihsan to get his uniform and did so much to help him settle into his A-level studies."

The old cliche is often trotted out that school years are your best years, but for Ihsan it was certainly true.

Even four years since going through the gates for the final time, Wallace still occupies a special place in his heart. So much so, in fact, that one of his select band of guests at a special celebratory graduation lunch yesterday was his old vice-principal, David Cleland.

"It was very special to have Mr Cleland there as he has been so inspirational in my life," Ihsan explains.

Having become such a popular member of the school community in a relatively short space of time, it is no wonder that they have continued to keep a proud and watchful eye on the achievements of their former pupil.

"We in Wallace are very proud of all that Ihsan has achieved and he is a wonderful role model for our students, showing great resilience and determination to succeed," explained David.

"It was an honour to be invited to share in such a special event and thanks go to Michael Deane for making the day extra special with decorations and a cake, recognising the achievements of Ihsan. All the Wallace staff are looking forward to following Ihsan's career with great interest."

Perhaps the empathy of local people to the Baleeds' story is one of a shared past littered with dark memories and struggles to come through adversity.

Certainly Northern Ireland was not on the horizon when, like any other child, Ihsan played in the streets, attended school and lived life to the full.

The outbreak of a bloody civil war in Aleppo in 2011 changed all that. Fun and friendship was replaced by fear and trepidation before the family took the incredibly brave step of moving thousands of miles across the globe.

"Before the war, it was normal. I went to school every day, I did my homework and played with friends. It was like the life of any student, but then everything changed. After the war started it was dangerous and I had to stop school," he said back in 2015 when looking back on his previous life.

Friends and family who remained in Syria's second city have had to endure a bloody and horrific war, suicide car bombs and gun battles replacing the fun and laughter on the now crumbling streets.

Things have since returned to a degree of normality in one of the Middle East's oldest cities but, for the Baleed family, 'home' is now Northern Ireland and they are excited by what the future holds for them and prize pupil Ihsan.

"While I miss Syria, especially family and friends who are still there, Northern Ireland is my home now and I am looking forward to building my future here," Ihsan says.

And he is even getting to grips with that one thing we all love to complain about - the enigma that is our weather.

"I can't understand it when I hear people complain about the rain - I love it! The people here are very friendly and I've settled well into my job, learning so many new things already," he adds.

It is a far cry from when he arrived, with a grasp of English that was limited at best, but again Wallace High proved to be more than simply a school for him.

After finding a new home in Lisburn, Ihsan returned to the classroom for the first time in over a year, but with the language barrier, he admitted that it was a move that filled him with some dread.

"In the beginning I had to translate everything and sometimes that was difficult because when the teacher is explaining, there's not enough time to translate a word from English to Arabic. I had to keep up and after a while I got used to it."

Extra English lessons and tuition helped him achieve his dream of going to Queen's.

"My mother had always planned that I should study at Queen's because it's a good university, and my grandfather studied there 50 years ago," he explains.

And now that next step on his remarkable journey has been completed.

It was a day for celebration in Deanes at Queens, tinged with the sadness that his beloved father couldn't be there - but surrounded by friends and his incredibly resilient mother and siblings, it was the start of what they will all hope is a new chapter in his life, even if it does rain from time to time.

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