Graham Clifford: Ireland must act at home to back up our big words on Afghanistan at UN

"More people live on Cape Clear and Sherkin Island than the amount of Afghan refugees we’ve committed to accepting."
Graham Clifford: Ireland must act at home to back up our big words on Afghanistan at UN

Zaki from Afghanistan and Graham Clifford's two year old son, Cillian. 

As soon as we’d reach Ballincollig Regional Park on a Saturday morning my little lad would immediately scan the parkrun hoards looking for his mate – Zaki from Afghanistan.

Cillian would leap out of my arms into Zaki’s and the two lads would laugh and smile like long lost friends.

It was one of those utterly sweet bonds that transcends language or age. Just two lads hanging out.

Through the Sanctuary Runners’ movement, I’ve been so fortunate to have met many Afghan people in Ireland – so far from home, from mothers, fathers and loved ones. From the villages, mountain sides and streets where they grew up. From their stunningly beautiful country.

And, of course, it was of them I immediately thought when news broke that the Taliban had taken Kabul.

All have family back at home and are beyond stressed and distressed. One told me “the Taliban are like wild animals.”

He had to finish the conversation to go to his job at a pizzeria in Cork City. In the moments afterwards I thought of him trying to concentrate on pizza orders and deliveries while knowing that, at any moment, the Taliban could, potentially, force their way into his family’s home in Kabul.

Awake at night

There are around a dozen Afghan families living in Cork that I know of and then individuals like my friends – some in Direct Provision and some now living independently in the community having acquired their papers. 

Hardworking, smart and kind people who display a real sense of decency and respect. They’ve worked throughout Covid19 and never complained.

In times past they’ve looked after me. When my father passed away last year one of the first messages of sympathy I received was from one of the wonderful Afghan boys.

And over the years we’ve had so many laughs. Three of the Afghan Sanctuary Runners in Cork travelled with me to run in a 10-mile race in Mallow in 2019. While two of the runners was prepared, one was more laid back and must have misunderstood me when I told them it was a 10-mile race and not a 10km race to which he’d have been accustomed.

Refugees scramble to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban resume control. Picture: PA
Refugees scramble to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban resume control. Picture: PA

I waited at the finish line and embraced the first two Afghan finishers. By the time the last of the trio came into sight I could see by the look on his face that I was in trouble! Thankfully he didn’t have the energy to give out to me and we all just rolled around laughing like children. 

It was joyous and he quickly saw the funny side.

But these men now lay awake at night wondering what tomorrow will bring for their families. They cherish their safety but with that comes anguish and maybe even guilt. 

As with migration from all parts of the world, including Ireland in years gone by, its young men who are sent first in the knowledge that they may be best able to make it through to the final destination and perhaps, in time, bring their families.

It’s not easy.

Last year a young Afghan man in Monaghan, Muhammed, took his own life while in Direct Provision – the Sanctuary Runners organised a run in his memory, and Mostafa Darwish reported on his death in this newspaper.

Soul destroying commitments

The low number of refugees from Afghanistan that Ireland has committed to accepting in the coming weeks is soul destroying.

Think of it like this – there are small residential streets in every Irish city and town where 200 people live. 

Single streets – and 200 is the amount of refugees the government has agreed to accept at the moment. 

More people live on Cape Clear and Sherkin Island than the amount of Afghan refugees we’ve committed to accepting.

Minister Coveney says Ireland would like to take more but could only do so if it was clear these refugees could be adequately looked after. I’m bewildered by this line. 

Ireland’s GDP is 50 times that of Afghanistan’s and we’re in the middle of one of the most serious humanitarian disasters of our time – and we’re worried about what exactly?

Just get it done and bring people to safety, Minister. We should all be contacting our political representatives to call for flexible, compassionate and immediate action. A humanitarian visa programme is needed to reunite families.

It’s all well and good speaking with such passion on the UN security council, and to be fair the Irish Mission in New York has been leading from the front, but we must back this up with action at home.

And we must do this, not just for our Afghan friends already in Ireland and their family members, but also, we must do this for us. We must turn the lens away from the migrant and towards ourselves – and ask who are we, what kind of country we want, and what kind of society we want to build for future generations? 

One obsessed with self-preservation, or one anchored in compassion?

  • Graham Clifford is a social entrepreneur and the founder of the Sanctuary Runners’ Movement – The Sanctuary Runners, founded in Cork, use running, jogging and walking to bring together asylum seekers, refugees and those in the wider Irish community. See: SanctuaryRunners.ie

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