REPRISALS against his brave work in opposing an authoritarian regime saw 30-year-old Sayed Ahmed flee Bahrain and begin a journey that saw him end up in Lisdoonvarna.
Home for Sayed, his wife, son and brother has been the direct provision centre at the King Thomond Hotel since April of last year but with refugee status now secured, they are moving to Dublin, where Sayed has a college place and where he expects to get work.
He was first arrested in 2006 for being part of a group arranging a protest at his school and from then on, he was in the crosshairs of the authorities in his home country.
“From then to 2015, I kept being sent to jail for a few months at a time. I don’t know how often. I might have been arrested 13 or 14 times; it happened at least once every year. But I was lucky. I wasn’t like other people, who have been sentenced to 10 or 15 years.”
Sayed is now an activist with the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and is also involved with Salam for Democracy and Human Rights.
Being involved with seeking rights that are very basic by European standards was a dangerous way to spend his time in Bahrain, which has in the region of 6,000 political prisoners from a population far smaller than Ireland’s.
Sayed says many of those imprisoned are there due to confessions obtained through torture.
It is far from an open society and engaging with journalists, even with The Clare Champion thousands of miles from home, is not permitted.
“I was arrested for communication with media, publishing fake news about the Government and cooperating with parties considered as enemies. These were some of the charges. If I went back to Bahrain and they knew that I met with you and I talked with a journalist about what is happening in Bahrain, they would use this meeting to charge me and send me to court. They would charge me with communicating with parties considered as enemies.”
As well as silencing doubting voices in the media, power is very centrally controlled. “It’s a police state. It’s the Ministry of Interior and National Guard and the army who controls everything. They control the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education. For example, the Minister of Education is in power now for 11-12 years; he’s a military man. The Ministry of Health is now controlled by the Interior Ministry.
“All the agencies mainly don’t have power, even the parliament. We have a parliament in Bahrain but our parliament is for the government’s PR campaign, it doesn’t have power at all. As I said, it’s just for the PR. If the foreign minister is asked about human rights and the freedom of expression in Bahrain, he can say, ‘well, we have the parliament’. This parliament is elected by people but it has no power.”
On Wednesday, Sayed could show a mark on his wrist left when an officer of the regime burned him with a cigarette 10 years ago. He also says he has pellets in his body, left when officers fired at protestors and he was unable to get treatment, as it would inevitably lead to arrest and potentially a long spell of imprisonment.
The brutality was increasing in 2015, when he finally decided it was time to leave his home country.
“I was at one of my court sessions. When I was walking out, there were two people who were wearing traditional Arab clothing and they said to me, ‘you have to come with us’. I asked why and they said ‘that is not your concern, just come with us and you will know’. So they put me down in the basement where the car parking is. They didn’t cuff me or blindfold me in front of people. They took me down and they handcuffed me there from behind, blindfolded me and they put me in the car to the CID building and took me to an officer who knows me very well. This was in March 2015.”
The man he met was the same one who burned him in 2009. He is a well known and much-feared figure among those involved in the fight for human rights.
On the day, he threatened Sayed with sexual violence. “He says to me, ‘you never learned the lesson but now we will teach you’. Then he asked someone to take me to the
Black Room. He says, ‘take him to the Black Room’. I didn’t know what that means. So they took me to a room while I was still handcuffed and blindfolded. They ordered me to remove my clothes. He forced me to take off all my clothes and he said, ‘I’m going to rape you’.”
Sayed begged them to stop and while the officer did so, another man came with demands that had to be met.
“He said, ‘This is my number. What I want you to do is to spy on any human rights activists working in Bahrain. Use your relationship with them to spy on them and tell us who they are talking with, which media they are communicating with, what they are doing, from where they bring money, who gave them their salaries’. And I said ok. A few days later, I left Bahrain because I knew if I stayed, I would be forced to harm someone. On March 14, 2015, I left Bahrain.”
Kuwait beckoned and he managed to get across the border without a problem. There he found success, a degree of affluence and happiness. It is a time he recalls very warmly now but, sadly, it was not to last.
“I had a good salary. I had a good life but, unfortunately, the Kuwaiti authorities started arresting Bahraini activists in Kuwait. I had a few Bahrain friends. They arrested two of us and summoned a third. Within 48 hours, they had surrendered them to Bahrain. One of my friends used his phone call in prison in Kuwait to ring me. He said, ‘they were asking about you a lot’. He said, ‘take your brother’ because I have a brother who was 17. He said, ‘they were asking about you and maybe the reason they didn’t come to arrest you is because you’re married to a citizen’. My wife is a Kuwaiti citizen.”
Kuwait and Bahrain are strong allies and there was little prospect of him beating the system and being allowed to stay in his new home if Bahrain had their focus on getting him back within its borders.
It was time to go again and he flew to Ireland via Istanbul, seeking asylum as soon as he arrived at the airport.
He laughs when he remembers stepping off the plane just over a week before Christmas. “I was freezing to death! I came in December and I came from a country where it was 50 degrees!”
First of all, he was brought to Finglas, before being sent on to Lisdoonvarna in April 2018.
It took until a few months ago for him to get refugee status and he says the time in the direct provision system came withsome difficulties.
“It’s ok if you’re going to spend six months in it but it’s not a healthy place, especially for families. There are restrictions, you can’t eat your own food, only what they’ve cooked. It’s almost the same thing every day. We can’t cook, mostly we can’t work. After eight months, we can apply for work but living here in Lisdoonvarna, where is there to work? I want to go to university but there is no university. They don’t tell us ‘don’t go to university’ but because of the restrictions and rules, it’s very hard. Last year, I was doing the access course in Galway University to study medicine. I was studying for six or seven months but then my wife and son got sick and they were admitted to the hospital, so I had to withdraw.”
However, his time spent in education showed him the real warmth of the Irish people, with some in Lisdoonvarna helping him get to his course in Ballinasloe every day and some people on the Galway side providing him with accommodation to help ease the burden also.
“One of the great things here in Lisdoonvarna is the people, they are amazing. As I said, they helped me for seven or eight months. They were paying my tickets, giving me money. If the person who was hosting me wasn’t available, people here would give me money to stay in a hostel. The Government weren’t giving me the money but the people did.
“What I like about Lisdoonvarna, especially, is that they help people. I never asked for help but when they knew I was going to Galway, they decided to help.”
He may be moving to Dublin on the very day this article is published but the North Clare village will never be forgotten by at least one Bahraini.
“This might be my last day here but part of me will still stay here. I’ll be visiting frequently because I will never forget what they did for me.”
The move to Dublin will see him study at Plunkett College on the northside of the city, while he expects it will be easy to pick up a job there also. Working as an advocate for human rights in Bahrain saw him frequently meet TDs in Dublin, so it will be easier to continue that work also.
Having been forced to flee two countries in his 20s, Sayed was not in a very good place when he landed in Ireland but he has seen another side of humanity now and has been renewed by it. “I was feeling hopeless before coming here. But when I saw how people are supported here… I’m not talking about the Government but about the people. This has really touched me from inside and I will never forget the generosity. People in Lisdoonvarna are so good and so helpful.”
While he looks back with great fondness on the people he has met here, he does feel that speeding up the direct provision system would be very helpful for those caught in it, who have no idea what their long-term future will hold.
“The biggest fear was to be sent back because I knew what my fate would be there. Here, the waiting is killing people. It’s taking so long; you’re waiting without knowing when it’ll end. Really, it’s like a psychological torture,” he concludes.