Syrians are always up for a party. They’re like us at our best. They are a natural fit with Irish people, writes Victoria White

Every time I think about the welcome the people of Ballaghaderreen have given the 240 refugees hosted in their deserted new hotel I get emotional.

To think the Department of Justice never even asked them what they thought of the idea and didn’t even tell them why the hotel was being finished out, so that they dared to hope there’d soon be a “situations vacant” sign in the window; only to have their hopes dashed with the announcement last January that the deeply depressed town had been earmarked to house the refugees mostly from Syria who we had promised to take a full 18 months before. “Emergency response” my eye.

So what did the community do? They organised to welcome them: They built a “Welcome Wall” with artist Maria Fleming; they built an outdoor and an indoor play area in the empty hotel; they organised football matches; and they put a young Syrian violin maker called Al in touch with retiring violin maker Dave Teehan who donated him his valuable tools.

The sheer decency of rural Ireland has shone through. Which makes the contrast with the official response of the Department of Justice all the more stark. Most Irish people welcome Syrian refugees. Sixty percent of them told a Newstalk poll they’d be happy to live in “close proximity” to them.

So the department whisks them straight from the airport to Baleskin outside Dublin and on to a hotel outside Ballaghaderreen where they look out the window and say: “There are no people.”

I spent Monday in the Abbeyfield Hotel, Ballaghaderreen. Having made friends with a Syrian refugee volunteer last year in a Greek refugee camp I had promised to visit any of his friends who ended up in Ireland.

I had seen them on Facebook, beaming and waving Tricolours because they had “got Ireland” and I felt a creeping anxiety they would be disappointed. Sitting with them in the foyer of the Abbeyfield looking out at the rain which bucketed down for the whole day I’d have to admit that’s what’s happened.

They’ve never before seen a town in which “there are no people”. They have little contact with locals and in the six months they’ve been sitting there speaking Arabic their English hasn’t much improved.

Rooms at the back of the hotel have at last been fitted out as classrooms where English classes take place; although no books have been provided, for reasons unclear.

But the worst thing about this so-called Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre is it keeps the refugees largely isolated from Irish people.

“Every day,” says one of them.
“I ask myself the question why this hotel was built here?” I try to
explain the word “boom”. Then the word “bust”. Ballaghaderreen paid a heavy price and now these Syrians are paying another one.

Yes, they’re warm and dry and fed. The hotel feels welcoming. The signs are in English and Arabic. The hotel rooms are described as apartments. But these people were in the waiting room of life for a year or more before they arrived here and were told they’d be in Ballaghaderreen for four to six weeks.

They didn’t expect another nine months or more of limbo and they’re bored silly. One woman told me her friends were getting pregnant to break the monotony.

They’re literally sick and tired of being served up their food. One young man says he’s put on a load of weight and another flaps his arms and squawks because he’s had chicken so often he thinks he’s turning into one.

They show me the room they laughingly call “Supervalu”, a shop operated from a wardrobe in one of the rooms, which sells Arabic basics like coffee and sunflower seeds. It’s just an effort to stay sane made by people who have already lost so much.

I met a woman who had to travel to Ballaghaderreen alone because her husband, who was disabled, drowned off the coast of Turkey.

I met a man who says he will mnever return to Syria because his 13-year-old brother was taken out of school and murdered.

These are everyday stories at the Abbeyfield. And yet these people try so hard to stay cheerful.

I spend time with Syrian refugees because it’s fun. I love their strength, humanity, faith and warmth but what keeps me coming back is the craic.

I realise you can’t generalise but in my experiencem Syrians are laughers, jokers, singers, play-acters, inveterate tea-drinkers and always up for a party. They’re like us at our best. They are a natural fit with Irish people.

But we need to get together. And the Department of Justice seems intent on keeping us apart. Yes, €500,000 was doled out in “integration projects”. But the refugees don’t need projects as much as to be living among Irish people which would, I believe, lead quickly to natural bonds of friendship.

Those friendships could help these New Irish so much. After just a couple of hours I was offering to mentor a young would-be journalist woman and to help a young man trawl through the paperwork on family reunification.

Tiny offers of help are so gratefully received that it’s humbling. But the only reason the offers of help are not coming is that the Abbeyfield residents have had little chance to make Irish friends.

Our government has chosen to waste the Irish people’s spirit of hospitality by failing to clear any paths between us and our new guests. By contrast, Canadians can volunteer to help through a government website and Canadian businesses can offer to get involved.

Why has this not happened here? Why has our welcome been squandered? When Dublin’s Silk Road Café at the Chester Beatty Library put up a GoFundMe request to bring refugees on coach trips to Dublin, with the help of City of Sanctuary and the Red Cross, the money was in overnight. Irish people want to help but they are not being helped to help.

Another group of 80 refugees is poised to arrive which means my friends will be out of Ballaghaderreen by Christmas. They mostly want to go to cities but will likely be sent to rural Mayo or Donegal.

Let’s hope it works out. Already one of my Syrian friends cheers wildly for Mayo in the football, like most of Ballaghaderreen.

It’s possible they’ll all settle very well. But my fear is that the determination of the Department of Justice to keep refugees apart from the rest of the population — and their refusal to facilitate us to give these poor people a true Irish welcome — will one day prove a recipe for disaster.

How long will it take before the refugees stop giving us the benefit of the doubt and begin to distrust us? How long will it take before we begin to distrust them back?


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