A new refugee resettlement scheme which has seen Irish communities open their arms to welcome those fleeing war and persecution is to be rolled out nationwide.
The Minister with special responsibility for immigration and integration, David Stanton, has now invited towns and villages across the country to consider getting involved in the Community Sponsorship Ireland (CSI) initiative following a successful pilot programme with five refugee families who have settled in Cork, Waterford and Meath.
CSI, which works successfully in Canada and the UK, gives private citizens and community-based organisations an opportunity to directly support a refugee family who are newly arrived here.
Mr Stanton told the launch event in Cork today that the human connection which derives from the programme is “extremely real” and that “integration happens organically”.
It’s a real success story. We have had a lot of communities here come to us in the department asking what can we do to help.
“This is a practical, tangible, positive, workable way of helping families. Any community in Ireland can contact the department and we will work with that community.
“I am disappointed that there are other communities that think there is something to be afraid of. There isn’t. The evidence is there.”
Ireland has pledged to accept some 4,000 refugees, as declared by the UNHCR, fleeing conflict and war zones. They have the same rights on arrival in Ireland as Irish citizens. About two-thirds have settled here already, originally through emergency reception and orientation centres before their dispersal to homes around Ireland.
CSI was piloted in three counties over the last year or so. Sponsoring communities set up support groups and submitted a detailed plan of proposed supports they could provide for the refugee family for a period of up to two years following their arrival.
The groups underwent a matching and vetting process to link with a support organisation and a refugee family.
The groups then undertook to source accommodation, introduce new arrivals to services locally, and give a broad-based system of support such as English language tuition, employment, and education.
So far, five refugee families - 17 people in total - have made homes in communities in Cork, Waterford and Meath. Another family is to be welcomed into a host community in Dublin next month.
Mr Stanton said the government is considering a further pledge to accept more refugees, and he hopes most will resettle here under the CSI scheme.
“Welcoming a refugee family is a serious undertaking and has proven to be a hugely rewarding and beneficial one for both communities and those resettled refugee families who have come from hell on earth,” he said.
Community Sponsorship enables sponsor groups to provide not only supports to refugees but also to extend hands of friendship and a warm welcome to them. I strongly urge communities the length and breadth of the country to get involved.
Enda O’Neill, the head of office of UNHCR Ireland, said CSI has had a positive impact on the lives of refugees who have made Ireland home.
“With less than 0.5% of the world’s refugees resettled in 2018, complementary pathways such as community sponsorship are a vital lifeline for people fleeing persecution and war,” he said.
Amnesty International Ireland’s Colm O’Gorman said many people here care deeply about the plight of families fleeing persecution and conflict in Syria but that often, they feel helpless.
“CSI changes that entirely. It puts local communities at the heart of our response to the refugee crisis. Now local people can work together to welcome, support and integrate people who have fled conflict and help them make Ireland their new home,” he said.
Case Study 1
Syrian brother and sister, Aram Wahhoud, 30, and Marwa, 31, who have resettled in Lismore, Co Waterford, said they have felt incredibly welcome since their arrival just over four months ago.
Aram, a visual artist, painter, sculptor and puppeteer, has been invited to take part in a major poetry festival in Lismore next summer.
“I met some local poets this week and they have invited my puppet, who is a poet, to read some of his own poetry next August. I am really looking forward to that,” he said.
Marwa, who worked in public relations, is working with him on the promotion of the event and also exploring other job opportunities.
They have thrown themselves fully into local life and were involved recently in the preparation of a pop-up charity shop in the town.
Lynne Glasscoe, head of the Lismore Welcome Project, said they are now part and parcel of the community.
“And most importantly, they are welcomed,” she said.
Ms Glasscoe was among a group of local people who were already supporting refugees based at the Clonea emergency reception and orientation centre, near Dungarvan.
“When this Community Sponsorship pilot project came up, we seemed like the obvious group to ask would we consider doing it for Lismore.
“It is very much a grass-roots approach - fundraising, organising, finding accommodation, making sure it was suitable, making links with schools and medical services - many of the things that were previously done by the state - but then layering all the social aspects on top of that as well.”
Case Study 2
Little Fatima and her young parents faced a very bleak future as war raged around their village in Syria.
But just four months after arriving in their new home in Ireland, her parents say they now have hope for a better future.
And even though Fatima is just 18-months-old, her parents can now dream big for her future.
Mohamed Alzeer, his wife, Hiba Abbara, and Fatima, have resettled in Midleton, Co Cork, through the Community Sponsorship programme, where they have been welcomed by the local community.
Mohamed and Hiba said they can't wait to see Fatima grow up safe and happy in East Cork and hope she will go on to study medicine - and maybe become a pediatric doctor.
“There is very little hope in Syria because of the war situation,” Mohamed said.
If we were still in Syria, we wouldn’t consider having children because of the war and all the different circumstances surrounding that.
“But we have a new life now - and it’s in Midleton.
“It is a nice town, with wonderful people, who are very nice and friendly.
“We feel we are really lucky to be living here, that we got an opportunity to live in Midleton.
“We are very happy and we would like to thank the Irish people, especially to everyone who was involved in helping us, from the organisations, the volunteers, and especially the people of Midleton.
“Our wish now is that Fatima is happy and we are hoping that one day she will be a doctor, and maybe specialise in looking after children.”
The couple are learning English and hope to contribute to their new community over the coming years.