‘We need to think of refugees as people who have a lot of potential’

August 15 23:45 2019 Print This Article

Afshin Samali was 15 years old when he fled across the border from Iran into Pakistan with his family. More than three decades on, he still remembers the fear pulsing through his veins as he sat in the back of an open truck for nearly two days, crossing deserts and mountains, often by night to avoid detection by the authorities.

Upon arrival in Pakistan, the family was given refugee status and protection by the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. They spent the following two years waiting to be relocated to the United States, Canada or Australia, which were accepting Bahá’í refugees at the time. However, in 1985, the family was offered protection in Ireland.

“We knew very little about the country,” remembers Samali. “One of the subjects I’d studied at school was European political geography so I knew Ireland was on the western end of Europe and that there was a border between north and south. But we thought the main language was Irish, we didn’t know people spoke English.”

On December 3rd 1985, Samali, his parents and two siblings stepped off a plane into a cold, rainy Dublin night where they were met by representatives from the national assembly of Bahá’ís in Ireland. Three days later, they moved to Sligo.

Samali was one of 26 Bahá’í refugees invited by the Irish Government to resettle in Ireland in light of the group’s persecution in their home country. Since the faith’s foundation in mid-19th century Persia, Bahá’í members had experienced fierce opposition for their beliefs. However, following Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, members faced extreme persecution and violence, with more than 200 Bahá’í leaders executed or killed in the 40 years since. Iran’s government still severely restricts Bahá’ís’ right to education and they are banned from studying at university.

A month after arriving in Sligo, Samali and his brother were enrolled in the local Christian Brothers’ school. “Even though we were at one of the biggest schools in the region, there were only two other boys from another country there. It was so different to schools around Ireland today. For the first year I just sat and listened and tried to absorb as much as I could. People were kind and helpful but it was difficult to communicate and took the best part of a year to learn the language.”

Study biology

In 1989, Samali sat his Leaving Cert and went on to study biology at Maynooth University. “My best friends that I’ve made in Ireland are from the time I was in college. I loved it. I shared a house with four guys and they were a year ahead of me which was a great help. I had seen how the Bahá’í suffered in Iran – that they couldn’t go to university – so I was in Maynooth to learn. I didn’t take anything for granted. I had fun but worked hard and was there for a purpose.”

Samali went on to do a PhD in biochemistry at University College Cork, where he met his wife, Adrienne Gorman, who was also a researcher in the college. The couple were married in 1997 and moved to Sweden the same year, where Samali continued his cancer research into how cells live and die. In 2000, the couple both secured positions in biochemistry at NUI Galway and Samali went on to become a professor at the university.

The couple now have two children while Samali teaches biochemistry and is still working on cancer research. Last year, he was part of a team of scientists who made a major breakthrough in developing a drug which improves the effectiveness of initial chemotherapy treatment for the most aggressive form of breast cancer and also reduces relapse.

“I’ve been working on this research area since I started my PhD and I find it fascinating. Everyone knows someone who has suffered from cancer so I think it’s a beneficial area of research to go into.”

Samali says he and his wife have brought up their son and daughter, who are in their teens, to have an appreciation for both their Irish and Iranian roots. “They went to Gaelscoil for primary school but at the same time we taught them about Persian culture and traditions and history. We raised our kids to be aware of their heritage but also to make sure they are truly world citizens and help the betterment of their local community or society, wherever they decide to live.”

Samali often thinks about visiting Iran to see his relatives and would love for his wife and children to see Iran. “But I feel very rooted here in Ireland, this is my home. I’ve integrated here. It would be very difficult to go back and anyway, at the moment the opportunity isn’t there.”

‘Betterment of Irish society’

He also reflects on how different his life might have been had his family stayed in Iran. “Even to this day, Bahá’ís in Iran do not have the opportunity to go to university. So I would not have taken this career path, I would not have reached my potential as a scientist.” His family’s resettlement in Ireland “allowed me to develop into a scientist and academic, which now puts me in a wonderful position to be able to contribute towards the betterment of Irish society and beyond through my teaching and my cancer research”.

“In the 19 years I’ve spent at NUI Galway so far, I have contributed to the training of thousands of undergraduate students, supervised over 50 postgraduate students who have gone on to work in industry and academic positions. I’ve had success in my research, have secured €23 million for cancer research, published over 150 peer-reviewed research papers and have seven patents, and co-founded three start-up companies.”

Until recently, very few of Samali’s colleagues knew about his background. “Most of them thought I’d come here as a recent immigrant. But I thought it was my turn to give something back to UNHCR and the community with respect to the welcome we experienced when we first came here. I believe the Government’s policy to support refugees to settle here in the 1980s, despite Ireland’s harsh economic conditions, was an excellent investment in the future of Ireland.”

“We need to think of refugees as people who have a lot of potential. We should give them the opportunities to help them contribute to the betterment of society.”

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