Creating a culture of welcome for Ireland’s refugees with a Place of Sanctuary

Akeem Ahmed, a Nigerian refugee, pictured at St Patrick's Gateway Centre

Every City or Place of Sanctuary is different but they all aim to give refugees and asylum seekers a sense that they are welcome in the community, says Sharon Ní Chonchúir

A photo roused the world to action last year. When people saw the drowned body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, they realised they had to do something to help the thousands of refugees arriving in Europe.

The only question was what. Some found the answer in City of Sanctuary, a movement which consists of local communities working to make their cities and towns welcoming places for everyone, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers.

Aylan Kurdi
Aylan Kurdi

This movement began in Sheffield in 2005 and has spread to over 70 cities and towns. Dublin became a City of Sanctuary in 2014 and Waterford followed suit last September.

The movement was founded by Inderjit Bhogal, a Methodist minister who came to the UK as a refugee child. “He wanted to create a culture of welcome that wasn’t just about organisations but communities,” says Tiffy Allen, the Dublin-based coordinator of City of Sanctuary. “He was living in Sheffield at the time so he set it up there and in the 10 years since, it’s taken hold of people’s hearts and minds.”

Each City of Sanctuary is different. “It’s the local community that shapes it in its own way,” says Tiffy. “But no matter what projects they choose, they are always about reaching out and giving refugees and asylum seekers the sense that we welcome them and understand their situation.”

These projects usually focus on arts, schools, faiths, sports, or health. A theatre project in Derry, for example, saw three refugees and three locals whose lives had been impacted by the Troubles telling stories of their personal search for a safe haven.

“We’ve also organised meetings between midwives and refugee women who are pregnant or have recently had babies,” says Tiffy. “Midwives need to know about specific issues facing these mothers and these mothers need to know what services and supports are available to them.”

Then there are more unusual projects such as bike workshops. “Broken bikes are donated and local people and refugees take part in a workshop where they learn how to mend them,” says Tiffy. “At the end, the refugees get a bike but they also gain new skills and friends.”

The city of Waterford,which has become a Place of Sanctuary
The city of Waterford, which has become a Place of Sanctuary

Tiffy is very excited about what’s happening in Waterford. “They made a huge statement with their high-profile launch ,” she says. “Since then, they have made the initiative county-wide so that Waterford is now a Place of Sanctuary, not just a city.”

Orla O’Neill-Hayes is a member of the committee. She thinks it’s a movement whose time has come.

“When you think that 26% of people in Waterford City and County are minority groups — including refugees, migrants, LGBT, Roma, people with disabilities and Travellers — you realise we’ve needed something like this for a long time,” she says. “You can see it in the response we’ve got from people. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for this to come along.”

Events such as the attacks in Cologne don’t seem to have dinted enthusiasm either. “You hear the occasional complaint,” says Orla. “But for the majority, what they hear in the news makes them more committed and more curious. They want to find out the truth about these refugees.”

The first project being organised in Waterford will help them do just that. “It’s a training programme that will give refugees and asylum seekers a voice to tell their own stories in their own words, rather than me — a girl from Waterford — speaking for them,” says Orla. “The course will involve public speaking and also teach them how the media and political systems work in Ireland.”

One man who is eager to use that voice is former refugee Akeem Ahmed. He arrived in Ireland seeking asylum in 2007. “I was a human rights activist in Nigeria but it reached a point where it wasn’t safe for me to live there anymore,” he says.

His asylum application process took five years, a period Akeem thinks was far too long. “Living like that — where you get housed, clothed and fed but are not allowed to work, study or move on with your life for years on end — is not good for anyone,” he says.

Although angry at the system, Akeem is grateful to the Irish. “There’s one thing that cannot be taken away from the Irish and that’s that they are welcoming people,” he says. “It’s in their very nature.”

Brian Killoran, CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland
Brian Killoran, CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland

He hopes the Waterford Place of Sanctuary movement will give him a say in changing Ireland for the better. “Now that I’m a naturalised Irish citizen, I see this country as my country,” he says. “Together with the Waterford Place of Sanctuary, I want to play my part in moving Ireland forward, especially when it comes to how it treats and integrates refugees and asylum seekers.”

Brian Killoran, CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, thinks community movements are vital for integration. “The best result for refugees, local communities, and Ireland as a whole is if everyone from a migrant background is given the opportunity to take part in Irish life. This includes everything from education, training, and work to sports, business, and politics. ”

The goal for the Immigrant Council and for City of Sanctuary movement is to reach out even further. “The biggest barrier to people welcoming others into their community is misinformation and lack of understanding,” says Tiffy Allen. “That’s what we’re doing with City of Sanctuary throughout Ireland and the UK. We’re trying to raise awareness on all sides.”

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