Victoria White: Justice minister must build a Road to Damascus for us on immigration

I feel, like a punch in my gut, comments like those of Verona Murphy... that ISIS supporters make up ‘a big part’ of the migrant population, writes Victoria White

Local people protesting in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, at what they claim will be a continuous and peaceful demonstration outside an apartment complex in the town where, they understand, it is planned to accommodate 130 asylum seekers. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Local people protesting in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, at what they claim will be a continuous and peaceful demonstration outside an apartment complex in the town where, they understand, it is planned to accommodate 130 asylum seekers. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

It’s now three years since I sat outside a mobile home in Athens, in kinks of laughter as a Syrian refugee recounted the story of his journey to safety.

There was a dense fog and he had no idea where he was going as he drove a motor boat full of refugees from Turkey to Greece.

He had never even driven a lawn-mower before and he couldn’t swim.

He was, he said, far more surprised than any of his passengers when he reached the Greek coast.

You can’t always be sad, can you?

I still remember the night on that lovely verandah, constructed by Ahmad from UNHCR pallets, as I fell under the spell of a bunch of Syrians.

Reason tells me they must be as diverse as the rest of us.

Experience tells me that I seek out the company of refugees from the Middle East because they make me happy. Like us, they can make comedy out of the worst situations. And I mean the worst.

Ahmad fled Deir ez- Zour to get away from Syrian President Bashar Assad, only to be hunted by ISIS in Raqqa. His escape from his twin oppressors was miraculous. His gentle mother-in-law, who sat smiling on the verandah with us that night, lost her husband to a massive heart attack while in Turkey.

Unlike most of us, many Syrians are people of faith, which in my experience means they feel a duty to share all they have and they have a useful belief that they are in the hands of a Higher Power.

This means, in my experience, that they tend to be joyful.

It may be, of course, that these values pre-date Islam in their communities and that their religion only codifies them.

It is true, however, that early Christians were noted for their joy which makes me wonder if faith and joy have a deeper connection.

The Syrian refugees that I have questioned over the last three years, in Greece, in Lebanon and in Ireland, view with horror the idea that their religion should be politicised.

As my Syrian friend Amjad told a British jihadi who arrived in Piraeus Harbour in an attempt to radicalise refugees, “Islam is for the soul.” I feel, like a punch in my gut, comments like those of Verona Murphy, who is standing for Fine Gael tomorrow in the Wexford by-election, to the effect that ISIS supporters make up ‘a big part’ of the migrant population.

Which is the result of my privilege.

I have met lots of Syrian refugees because my educational background predisposed me to seek them out and my work opened my door to them.

If those factors had not been in place, I might be making comments like Murphy’s.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin called Murphy’s fullsome apology after four hours in an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre in Dungarvan a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion, but it is still quite possible that it was sincere.

She had not met Middle Eastern refugees and asylum seekers before but was shooting her mouth off, regardless.

Come face to face with an asylum seeker who has some English or an interpreter and our common humanity takes over.

I remember the young Syrian widow I met in Ballaghaderreen, Co Leitrim, when I travelled there with Syrian women I got to know through the Cities of Sanctuary movement. She lost her husband to drowning off the coast of Greece because he was disabled and couldn’t stay afloat.

I remember my own crassness when I commented to a Kurdish 16-year-old girl I met on an outing with the Sanctuary in Nature group that she must miss the parents she hadn’t seen for three years. Her beautiful eyes overflowed on the park bench.

Most Irish people have never met any refugees or asylum seekers and we are relying on their educational background and culture to stop them turning ignorance into hatred.

It is human nature to fear the stranger and it has taken millennia of culture to overlay that tendency. This culture promotes our progress because we advance as we learn from each other.

The hard truth is that Verona Murphy’s pre-Damascene views on refugees and migrants are common.

Many Irish people even conflate Islam with ISIS. The ERSI published research a year ago which showed only 41% of Irish people would welcome Muslim immigrants, as opposed to 60% who would welcome immigrants of their own ethnic group.

This was lower than the average score among the 10 Western European countries surveyed for their welcome for Muslim refugees.

For years, as I tried to help organise ‘meet and greet’ events with Muslim refugees, I have been calling the ignorance caused by their isolation in direct provision as ‘an accident waiting to happen’. The accident has now happened in different ways all over the country, from Achill to Oughterard to Ballinamore to Rooskey to Lismore to Moville and beyond.

It has been allowed to happen by a Department of Justice which has steadfastly refused to promote meetings between asylum-seekers and Irish people.

Refugees and asylum seekers are housed together in large numbers on the margins of towns and villages which ‘supports a fear of the other’, to quote the Irish Refugee Council’s Nick Henderson.

In the UK, emergency accommodation is unlikely to be used for more than three weeks before an applicant is transferred to an apartment or shared house in the same area.

In Ireland the average stay in direct provision in 2018 was 14 months. With a 60% increase in applications for international protection this year, and a tendering process in place for at least 1,500 extra beds spread throughout the country, the Department of Justice must break down the walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ before the accidents becomes a pile-up which brings this democracy to a stand-still.

Victoria White: Justice minister must build a Road to Damascus for us on immigration

Fine Gael should have stood away from their candidate in tomorrow’s by-election in Wexford — rather than sending out our Taoiseach to canvass with her — because we can never know how many of her votes are anti-immigrant votes.

It’s too late for that now.

Announcing a Citizens’ Assembly on migration, as suggested by Irish Examiner columnist Fergus Finlay, is a good idea.

However, the first thing Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan should do if he really wants to ‘dissociate’ himself from Murphy’s anti-migrant views is draw up an Action Plan to help Irish and migrant get to know each other.

He knows the importance of face to face meetings because he marched his candidate Verona Murphy into an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre the day after some of her seemingly anti-immigrant comments surfaced.

He has witnessed her seeing the light.

Now he must build a Road to Damascus for the rest of us.

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