THE tranquil beauty of Inchydoney is a stark contrast to the war-torn city of Damascus where Mohammad Al Saadi was born.
Ballinscarthy is now home to the sous chef who works at the Inchydoney Lodge & Spa, and the hotel was the perfect setting for a recent Syrian BBQ fundraiser for the Clonakilty charity Island to Island, the West Cork humanitarian fund.
Mohammad and Carmel Nic Airt, principal of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin in Clonakilty, organised the event which raised over €3,000 for her charity.
As part of the event, Mohammad and his fellow Syrian chefs – his brother Ahmed Al Saadi and brothers Ammar Ghafarji and Wassim Ghafarji, all cooked up a storm for a good cause.
Des O’Dowd, proprietor of Inchydoney Lodge & Spa, has known two of the chefs for several years.
‘Ammar and Mohammad have been part of the team here in Inchydoney Island for over 15 years now. They are well settled in our community with families of their own,’ said Des. ‘It’s so heartbreaking to hear of the horrors and traumas that their families are enduring in Syria now.’
Married to local woman, Margaret McCarthy, Mohammad has two daughters Ameerd and Nadine, and Mohammad’s parents and his brother Ahmed live nearby too.
The Al Saadi family managed to secure visas to leave Syria last year, but the rest of their family and relatives are still caught up in the war that has devastated the country since 2011.
‘It was awful being here and hearing about the bombings and killings. I’d be on the phone to them and I could hear the bombings in the background. I was able to follow what’s happening through social media, which was good because we were able to find out information before our parents even knew about it – they had no electricity and I was able to tell them,’ Mohammad told The Southern Star.
‘I have two sisters and their children, who are still living in Damascus, and I’m constantly worried about how they are getting on,’ he added. ‘One of them is a single mother with four children. Her husband disappeared in 2002, so she’s relying on support from the family. It’s very tough. In late 2011 our family home was bombed, so my family packed their bags and left the area. They [sisters] were happy we got our parents out of the country.’
Getting his parents out of Syria wasn’t an easy process, but it was something Mohammad knew he had to keep pushing for, because his father was ill.
‘Under the Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme (SHAP) – which was offering temporary Irish residence to vulnerable people in Syria – I had to apply from here in 2011 and it was a long and hard process. My brother Ahmed was due to join the army when he finished his studies, so it was a matter of leaving the country as there was nowhere to go – he would have ended up in a camp.’
Mohammad’s father, Hekmat, is 70 now and suffers from diabetes. It was very hard for him, especially in the middle of a war zone and being displaced several times.
‘My parents are settling in here now, and we were lucky as my father had two brain injury surgeries in the space of two months last summer since he arrived here. He has gone through a lot. They stayed with me for a while after my dad’s operation, and they’re now settled in Clonakilty. They would love to go back at some stage, but that’s not feasible for now,’ added Mohammad. His parents have a visa for two years, but after that they are uncertain of their future. They would like it to be extended, for now, due to the political uncertainty in Syria.
‘It is a great programme alright, but at the same time I have to sponsor them as they can’t work.’
In the meantime, Mohammad has been busy holding fundraisers in aid of Syrian refugees who have managed to escape the country, but then find themselves stranded in camps on the Greek islands.
‘Des O’Dowd, owner of the Inchydoney Lodge & Spa has been very supportive of us and he helped a lot with our recent Syrian BBQ. Back in February we also organised A Taste of Syria event in O’Donovan’s Hotel where we raised another €3,000, which was given to Carmel for her worthwhile charity,’ said Mohammad.
Mohammad’s family didn’t escape the brutality in Damascus, either, as Ahmed, who works with him, found himself imprisoned by the local police for no apparent reason.
‘Ahmed and his friend were arrested by the police one time and they spent time in jail where he was tortured and beaten up. My extended family managed to get him released and he doesn’t like to talk about it now,’ explained Mohammad.
For now, Mohammad and his family in Clonakilty watch the news reports about the situation in Syria from afar, and try to keep in contact with his family there.
‘For me I feel useless as I can’t help my family, but what we are doing with the fundraisers is at least helping those fleeing the war and we try and help as much as we can.’