Past Pupils

4,500 Miles to Ireland: Abdul Ali Hassan’s Story

This article has been extracted from unhcr.ie.

19 December 2013

Abdul was just fifteen when he arrived in Ireland, anxious and alone. Fighting in his hometown of Kismayo, Somalia, had taken the life of his father and jeopardised the safety of his family. He had no choice but to flee.

Image: IDP women and children gather outside their makeshift homes at the Halabokhad settlement in Galkayo. © UNHCR/F.Juez

Somalia’s turbulent history has caused considerable displacement.  As of January this year 1.4 million people are internally displaced within the country, and over 1.1 million Somali citizens have crossed borders in search of safety.  It was Abdul’s mother and uncle who arranged the teenager’s travel to Ireland in 2006, a country which he knew nothing about – “it didn’t really exist in my geographical knowledge at the time.”

Undertaking a journey of 4500 miles alone was extremely daunting, but necessary for guaranteeing the teenager’s safety. Abdul stresses “I love my family so much and miss them a lot, but I had to do what I was told to because they are older and know what is best for me.”

Image: IDP women and children gather outside their makeshift homes at the Halabokhad settlement in Galkayo. © UNHCR/F.Juez

An Education Enthusiast

Initial impressions of Ireland are still etched on Abdul’s memory despite it being seven years since he first set foot on Irish soil.  As a new arrival everything was “very scary, “Dublin was “a big city of many people and everyone was moving fast.” This sense of uncertainty and isolation meant that “learning to trust people was not very easy” – as a process “it took some time.”  The language barrier was a significant obstacle initially; Abdul admits that he would routinely say ‘yes’ – “even when nothing made any sense.”

Until the end of 2010, unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Ireland were housed in hostels which was not an appropriate setting for them. This was a particularly difficult and lonely time for Abdul but thankfully he found solace in second level education:”Following my friend to the school, it changed everything. I was laughing again. I started making friends and somehow school became my happy place. Because everyone: the locals, students and teachers, were nice to me, my interest in school started to build up and I enjoyed classes even more.”

“And after a while school started to get easier, I understood more and learned more.”

In fact such was his enthusiasm that the standard school day became too short. The young Somali boy would stay for after-school homework club before spending the evening with a friend who taught him “physics, chemistry and the rest.”

“When I was free I would sneak into DIT library in Kevin Street and read more interesting stuff”, he elaborates.

“And after a while school started to get easier, I understood more and learned more.”

Abdul’s extraordinary efforts didn’t go unnoticed; he graduated from O’ Connells School C.B.S. as the 2009 ‘Pupil of the Year’.

Third Level Triumph

However, as an adult asylum-seeker who received just €19.10 a week, the fees for third level were prohibitively high. But Abdul was determined: “Even after I knew [the challenges of going to university] I went around Dublin looking at colleges.” This tenacity and zeal brought Abdul to the attention of the Dublin City University (DCU) Access Programme Coordinators, and in 2010 the young adult entered Common Entry Engineering with their support.

After excelling in his first year exams he transferred to Computer Aided Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and was awarded INTEL Foundation Education Scholarships for both 2010 and 2011. And just last month, Abdul graduated from DCU with a BEng honours degree in Computer Aided Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and the Chancellor’s Medal, which was presented in a special ceremony in the Helix.

“Everyone in the room stood up clapping for me for the things which I have done in my local communities, it was breath-taking (you would have to see it to believe it). Something like that normally doesn’t happen to people like me. This was the happiest moment and for the first time I was really proud of me.”

Image: Abdul Ali Hassed is presented with the Chancellor’s Medal ©DCU

Community Activism 

In addition to his academic achievements, Abdul has been a keen volunteer in his local community, as exemplified by his work with the ‘Dublin 8 is Great’ initiative, the Computer Clubhouse, and his own project ‘Trading Places’  which brought senior citizens and young children together in a spirit of cooperation and companionship.

These outstanding and selfless endeavours led to Abdul winning the ‘Barnardos Helping Hands Award’, a national award which recognises the excellent contribution made by those under the age of 25 to their local community. The organisation described him as “an inspirational role model for the young people he works with.”

Despite missing his family considerably it is clear that Abdul has firmly established a new life in Ireland.

“It is my second home, because the community I lived in helped me see the other side of me that I never knew was there. All the things I have achieved to this moment of my life, it’s with the help of ordinary local Irish people who really cared for me and that is very special to me.”

Image: A montage of photos from Abdul’s Trading Places community scheme.

By Alana Ryan

Ryan A. (2013) ‘4,500 Miles to Ireland: Abdul Ali Hassan’s Story’, unchr.ie. Available at: http://www.unhcr.ie/news/irish-story/4500-miles-to-ireland-abdul-ali-hassans-story . [19 December 2013]