The generosity and empathy of the average Irish citizen is of no surprise really. Haven’t we been seeking sanctuary abroad for centuries, asks Joyce Fegan
Racism is not very becoming on the Irish.
And whoever is trying to peddle it around these parts, you’re never going to make it happen.
You might make headlines and radio bulletins with your knowingly dodgy facts, maybe that’s your goal — free PR for your bid for a Dáil seat, but racism isn’t a natural part of the Irish DNA.
First there is the story of the house in Wicklow that was sourced and renovated for a reunited Syrian family, the al-Sulaimans, in 2018. The family of nine had fled their home in Syria in 2013, and five years later they were finally reuniting and putting down to roots.
A group of volunteers in Wicklow came together, sourced a house, and got busy renovating it. It started with the owner of the house, who lives in Australia, generously agreeing to provide the home to the family for a rent-free period.
Then Facebook came into its own. There were calls for painters and decorators, and in comments under the posts people would offer their time and expertise, coming to clean or scrub the house after their day’s work.
A local electrical and plumbing supplier gave their equipment free of charge and a hardware shop gave credit so volunteers could walk in and get paint, brushes, and so on.
Finally, the ‘Welcome to Ireland’ signs were hung and on April 24, 2018, the al-Sulaimans were given our famous Céad Míle Fáilte in their new home, just south of the Pale.
Then there is the story of Christmas present drive in Cork. This is happening as we speak. There are about 300 children living in direct provision centres in the Cork area, whose mums and dads haven’t been able to buy a present for in years — either because of the situations they’ve had to flee or because of the lengthy process of having to seek asylum in a foreign land.
This campaign is seeking to give parents €50 for each of their child to buy their own presents for them. Their goal is to raise €15,000 on GoFundMe. So far, the good people of Cork have given €3,575.
Then there is the story of the backpack drive of the summer of 2019. A group of asylum seekers, with the help of some Irish volunteers, put a call out for schoolbags, books, shoes, white shirts, and grey trousers so that the 2,000 children living in direct provision around Ireland could start school with a semblance of dignity.
And what did the good people of Ireland do? They gathered goods by the bucket load and orgaisations such as the Refugee Council of Ireland, which was a drop-off point, started running out of space such was the avalanche of generosity from muintir na hÉireann — a time when most families are under financial pressure to get their own children togged out and tooled up for school.
But the generosity and empathy of the average Irish citizen is of no surprise really. Haven’t we been seeking sanctuary abroad for centuries?
After all, those who’ve needed help in the past are often the first to recognise the plight of another and respond in kind.
Stories aside, and to stick to statistics in this time of loose facts, many of us like to volunteer.
According to the Central Statistics Office, 28.4% of Irish people volunteer. That percentage in human beings equates to more than 1m Irish people giving their time or skill to help another soul.
Those who volunteered were more likely to rate their level of life satisfaction as ‘very high’ or ‘high’ than those who did not volunteer.
In Ireland, half of all those volunteering do so informally. This leads us back to stories.
There are the Facebook pages in communities all around Ireland where the call goes out for a bag of baby clothes or a buggy for a newly arrived refugee, who happens to not just be alone in a strange land, but several months pregnant.
A sister asks another sister if she’s done with her one-year-old’s baby clothes and before long a wash goes on, a black sack is filled, and a bag of goods is being dropped off to the car park of a local GAA ground. Later that night, a woman will open a big bag and discover freshly cleaned clothes for her soon-to-arrive baby. She’ll never meet the Irish woman who gifted her the bag of clothes so a stranger, and a fellow mother, will have a few things to dress her baby in. The Irish woman won’t even think of it as a gift.
This is what Irish people do. This is who we are. We are not purveyors of fake news and loose facts, employed to incite hatred, racism, and discrimination.
We do not run vulnerable people from our towns and communities.
Instead, we are what we do and how we help.
We are people who run Goal miles on St Stephen’s Day and fill, or at least encourage our children to fill Trócaire boxes during Lent, whether we’re a practising Catholic or not.
Right now, there are children filling shoeboxes with toys and socks and wrapping them up as gifts for children they’ll never meet in a country they’ll probably never visit.
And while Ireland has its own domestic problems, with more than 10,000 people stuck in chronic homelessness, we’re smart enough to realise that one person’s hardship never trumps another’s.
Fixing problems isn’t about divvying up a finite pie, starting with our own first. Fixing problems is about first electing the right politicians who will implement policies that lead to achievable things such as sustainable housing and stable housing markets as well as a humane approach to welcoming asylum seekers.
Positive change is possible and it doesn’t start with punching down, it starts with remembering who we are.