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Friday 21 July 2017

GAA, knitting and English classes help Syrians start their new lives in Ireland

Ballaghaderreen curate Fr Joseph Gavigan gives Easter eggs to Syrian children at Abbeyfields Hotel Photo: Frank McGrath
Ballaghaderreen curate Fr Joseph Gavigan gives Easter eggs to Syrian children at Abbeyfields Hotel Photo: Frank McGrath

Ryan Nugent in Ballaghaderreen

A group of young Syrian men were walking down a road in Ballaghaderreen when a car, moving fast, sharply pulled in nearby. The men immediately put their hands up, fearing danger.

Of course, there was nothing to worry about, but despite more than a month in the Co Roscommon town, old habits die hard.

It's now stage three of the influx of Syrian refugees to the Abbeyfield Hotel, with 105 men and women now living there along with 44 children.

It's expected that 250 people will have moved there in total by the final stage.

Jacqueline Mullen, manager of the Ballaghaderreen Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre. Photo: Frank McGrath
Jacqueline Mullen, manager of the Ballaghaderreen Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre. Photo: Frank McGrath

Coming from a country destroyed by bombs and air strikes, many of these people have not only lost all their worldly possessions, but their livelihoods too. Businesses and homes have been turned to rubble.

Read More: Baby Zena is a ray of hope for family fleeing war

In order to integrate into their new home, they are grasping every opportunity with both hands, including Gaelic football.

Regular soccer matches are becoming the norm too, according to Jaqueline Mullen, the hotel manager at the centre of an unprecedented project that has encountered some teething problems.

Euroworld shopkeeper Helena McPartland, whose shop is close to the Syrian refugee centre in the Abbeyfield Hotel, Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon. Photo: Frank McGrath
Euroworld shopkeeper Helena McPartland, whose shop is close to the Syrian refugee centre in the Abbeyfield Hotel, Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon. Photo: Frank McGrath

The main worry among locals in the Co Roscommon town is an increased pressure on GPs.

Though staff at the centre insist healthcare is well under control, that doesn't mean the residents don't need attention.

The general manager of primary care service Safetynet at the centre, Fiona O'Reilly, explained that life in a war-torn country has had a severely adverse impact on people's teeth.

"The biggest issue is dental needs, it's huge among this population. I'm not sure if it is the war and the non-fluoridation of water, but it's a real issue," she said.

Read More: 'Young Muslims must be made to feel part of our society'

Meanwhile, as far as any potential issues of boredom go, a games room with pool table and air hockey is at the ready, though only when school's out - for both adults and children.

"The ladies have been taken out for coffee, the men have taken up boxing, GAA and football," Ms Mullen said.

"They're very willing to get involved and learn about our culture.

"The adults are taking English classes," she added.

These classes take place Monday to Friday - with the children kicking off their studies recently too.

This group is expected to be in Ballaghaderreen for a minimum of six months, with the ladies taking their own initiative to find new hobbies in the meantime.

"They come down and browse, the ladies like to knit, apparently, so they're pleased there's loads of wool," Helene Woodhead, from the local discount store, said.

Sewing their own clothes may become the next step, if they can get hold of some machines.

Áine McDermott from the Ballaghaderreen Chamber of Commerce said economically the influx "has been of benefit to the town," with supplies sourced from the local area.

But here Chamber of Commerce colleague Pat Towey said that, while there has been a warm welcome, there is disappointment that the hotel was not reopened commercially.

"As a Chamber of Commerce, we would have gone out of our way to keep the hotel, but at no point were we told that the Syrians were coming," Mr Towey said.

"We were shocked because we were led to believe the hotel would reopen. Ballaghaderreen needs a hotel and, with all respect to the Syrians, it didn't need an orientation centre.

"There aren't enough facilities. They're lovely decent people - I've no issue with them, and we're delighted to have them here now - but it would have been nice to have the hotel open as a business, because it would bring more business to the town," he said.

That may happen in future, but for now this is home to 150 Syrians taken from a war-torn state. The foundations for success have been laid.

The rest of the country will now watch on to see if Ballaghaderreen can lead the way.

Irish Independent

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