'Ireland gave us a new opportunity'
It's less than three years since Ahmed Al Shahoud arrived in Ireland, but the 20-year-old Syrian native has already become a valued member of the community in his adopted home town of Birr.
Working at Butler's Haven pharmacy in the town, he has gotten to interact with plenty of locals.
"I know most of the town!" he told the Offaly Independent. "I know a lot of people in the town. Birr is a nice town, and the people I work with are really good people."
Ahmed and some of his family came to the country at the end of 2018, under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme.
After an initial three months in the Abbeyfield Hotel Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre in Ballaghaderreen, they moved to Birr, where he started attending St Brendan's Community School.
He had very limited English when he arrived, and subsequently had to deal with the disruption caused by the pandemic, but despite such obstacles Ahmed managed to achieve over 300 points in this year's Leaving Cert and is now starting a course in nursing at Moate Business College.
His achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he missed several years of school, prior to arriving in Ireland, because he had been working in a pharmacy depot in Lebanon to help support his family.
Ahmed's family left their home in Idib, Syria, after their house was bombed when he was just ten years of age. They moved to Lebanon, where Syrian students were only taught in school in the afternoons, after the Lebanese students had left.
The lessons that the Syrian students were taught there were far too basic, Ahmed stated.
"They would teach us silly things that were too easy. I was wondering why I should bother staying, so instead I went to work to help my Dad pay the bills."
He recalled that when the family came to Ireland, in December 2018, settling in was difficult at first.
"The first two weeks were very hard. You miss your friends over there. You have a new life here but you find it difficult because you miss the rest of your family.
"But after we went to school, we met new friends. I got a job here, so everything is fine now. I'm really happy here. Ireland gave us new opportunity."
He started in fifth year at St Brendan's, which was a challenge given that he had not attended school for several years. He would follow YouTube lessons online in an effort to get up to speed.
"It wasn't easy for me because my English was not very good, and I have to translate some words. I had to learn English and do my homework every day.
"Then, after six months, the pandemic comes, so we went online and I really found it hard because over the streaming you cannot understand as much as when you are in class."
When he sat the Leaving Cert this year he was expecting to get somewhere between 200 and 250 points, so was overjoyed to find out he had earned a result of 313 points.
"I was so happy that I was able to get my course," he said.
He said the people of Birr had been friendly towards him since he arrived. "When I came here people said 'welcome to Birr, we are happy that you're here.'
"They ask about what happened to my home in Syria, and ask did any of my family die over there. So I just explain to them what happened."
His nursing course in Moate started this week and Ahmed told us he was looking forward to it.
He will continue to work part-time at the Haven pharmacy and, in the longer-term, hopes to pursue his ambition of becoming a qualified pharmacist.