Belfast Telegraph

Mohamed Mahfouz Balid a proud, decent man who would do anything for his lovely family - tribute to Syrian dentist who died after being knocked off his bike while cycling to work in Northern Ireland

Declan Lawn

I never met Mohamed Mahfouz Balid, and yet I feel like I knew him. That's because last September I was involved in making a documentary about the refugee crisis in Europe for BBC NI's Spotlight programme and in the end he and his family played a starring role.

We decided to split filming into two parts; I would travel to Lebanon to visit the refugee settlements where Syrian families had fled during the brutal civil war, while my colleagues Alys Harte and Lena Ferguson would speak to Syrian families who had already made the journey to Northern Ireland.

It was during the filming here at home that we came across the Balid family.

Their story was remarkable. They lived in Aleppo before the war, where Mr Balid had been a dentist.

As violence erupted and the city descended quickly into chaos, the family did the only thing they could; they bunkered down, buying as much food and water as they could, and stayed indoors.

Their children stopped going to school, and eventually Mahfouz was forced to stop working, and they simply huddled together as snipers and gunmen took over the streets.

In the Spotlight programme, Mahfouz said at times he had to venture outside to get food and water for his family. Every time he did so he was taking a huge risk - snipers took aim at anything that moved.

On one occasion, his baby daughter was hungry and needed milk. Mahfouz scoured the city, but found none, and had to return home.

Mahfouz was a gentle man but a proud one; being unable to feed his daughter was too much to bear. As he told the story, he broke down in tears.

Yet the Balids were among the lucky ones because of a link to Northern Ireland. His wife Abir's mother was from Belfast - she met her Syrian husband when he studied at Queen's and returned to Aleppo with him. For her daughter and grandchildren, it was a lifeline.

Abir and the children were able to get Irish passports and leave Aleppo. The family's escape from the city was dramatic - running down the streets of Aleppo as sniper bullets zipped overhead.

They made it to safety and a new life in Northern Ireland. But it was what happened after they got here that struck my colleagues and I most.

The family's eldest son Ishan came straight into sixth form speaking limited English. Two years later he got two As and a B in his A-levels and is now studying at Queen's.

The other three children also now speak near-perfect English and are also doing spectacularly well at school. They have friends from all backgrounds and religions.

They haven't just settled in here - they have excelled.

While I never met Mahfouz or his family, I sat for hours in the edit suite in the BBC as Lena and Alys put our programme together, and I watched the Balids.

Making television this way often gives a strange sense of intimacy; you sit through hours of unedited footage, and learn something about the people on screen. What emerged was a remarkable, inspirational family.

The Balids had been through hell, yet had managed to accept their past and not let it dictate their present.

Despite the connection to Northern Ireland they were strangers in a strange land, yet did everything they could to fit into their new surroundings.

In every aspect of their lives - at school, at university, at work - they took on huge challenges and succeeded.

Above all the family was grateful for the second chance Northern Ireland had given them. Mahfouz was especially delighted when, after being granted the right to work in this country, he took a job in a local factory.

In Aleppo his inability to provide for his family had driven him to tears; his new job here was allowing him to provide for them again.

He was cycling to that job on Wednesday when he died.

I understand the people of Lisburn have already rallied around the family.

I hope to finally meet the Balids when the time is right, and I know that my colleagues and I will try to offer them all the support we can.

Finally, I think it is worth thinking about a man like Mahfouz Balid in the context of the inflammatory rhetoric of our times.

We are bombarded every day with dark images of desperate people, and with dire warnings about the gathering masses on our borders.

Some would have us believe that they are not like us, not as human as us, not as good as us.

The truth, as shown in the life of a man like Mahfouz Balid, is that attributes like decency, strength and fortitude know no borders.

He was deeply grateful to be in Northern Ireland and for the refuge we provided to him and his wife and children.

It is we who should be grateful that he made it here, and that his remarkable family will continue to grow up among us.

Declan Lawn is a journalist with BBC NI's Spotlight

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