Billy Keane

Thursday 21 August 2014

My friend's parents are in their 80s and stuck in Damascus next to a rebel area

Billy Keane

Published 16/09/2013 | 11:09

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Smoke rises from heavy shelling in west Damascus (AP)
Smoke rises from heavy shelling in west Damascus (AP)

She looked very nervous. Her baby clutched to her breast. Behind her was a tall black man. Neither wore a ring but he must have been either a partner or a husband.

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From somewhere out of the corner of my eye I saw a young and athletic African run and scale a high wall. I don't know what became of him. Did he escape? Make his way further into Spain to a new life.

We were coming back from a day-trip to Tangier. Our family. We weren't nervous in the least. Looking forward to dinner in a nice restaurant.

Tangier was only all right. This horrible man forced us to buy a drum from him as we made our way to the ferry back to Spain. "You buy or I will hurt your children," he said. My initial reaction was to box his head off. But what can you do? If he was allowed that close to the queue then he must have being paying the police a kickback. If I complained we might have been forced to stay over and maybe miss the ferry home. I gave him a fiver for the drum. "I was joking, my friend," he said. "I would not harm your family." What could I do? I hope his camels get the mange.

The woman with the baby was stopped by the emigration police. Her man was behind us in the queue. For a second he hesitated. I'm only guessing now but possibly he had some sort of visa that allowed him enter Spain. The lady spoke in English. Poor English. She mumbled something about holidays. It was obvious she didn't have very much. Just a small bag. It was even more obvious she wasn't a holidaymaker.

We were waved on. Entered as EU citizens. As of right. The husband/partner came up along the queue.

They were politely ushered away from the gazing day-trippers. I often wonder what became of the family of three at the ferry port.

Mickey Mac Connell, the composer of 'Only Our Rivers Run Free', wrote a brilliant Christmas column for 'The Kerryman' back about 10 years ago. I cut it out and put the piece somewhere safe. So safe, in fact, I never found it again. But here's the gist of Mickey's piece.

Mickey called up a good few hotels in Kerry saying he wanted accommodation for a homeless family consisting of a father, a mother and a newborn baby. The family had no money, he said, and could not pay for their accommodation. The hotels were all full up, they said. Then one woman with a B& B offered the family a place to stay over Christmas. And she would give them the Christmas dinner as well. There was no such family. Mickey was just checking to see if there was any room at the inn, 2,000 years on from the first Christmas.

There are a whole set of facts that do not meet up in the middle. We all feel the human side. But we do not want the floodgates to open either. Would you have taken in the ferry family? But then what about the millions more waiting in the wings?

In my mind I see this giant, window-cleaning thing with a handle and a rubber bit at the end. The sort of device the entrepreneurs at traffic lights use to clean the grit off car windows. I see the cleaner stretched across all of Africa and it's pushing all the people up north, through rivers and jungles and mountains and forests. Pushing them up to North Africa. Just across the Med from the EU. This is the reality of the next 100 years and will be the scene of the world's biggest human catastrophe. Mankind itself will be under threat. It could well be the end of the world as we know it. Unless we act now and give billions more in aid to Africa.

And how do you think those displaced peoples will feel when they get to the edge of their continent? Think how bitter we were after the Famine of 1847 and multiply by millions.

Now here's a solvable problem. My friend was born in Syria but he's Irish now. We know each other for 25 years. I cannot mention his name, for reasons that will become apparent. He's a good man. Works hard and he settled in Dublin. His kids are Irish too. My pal's parents are in their 80s. They are stuck in Damascus. Medicines and food are hugely expensive. The old people live next to a rebel area and are in mortal danger. Just a few miles away, hundreds of adults and kids were murdered in a nerve-gas attack.

My pal wants to bring his Mam and Dad to live in Ireland until the situation calms. The old people love Syria and want to die in their beloved homeland but not right now. My friend will pay for his parents. There will be no cost to the State. His Irish partner handed the Taoiseach a letter at a social function. Enda was very nice to her and he sent a sympathetic reply almost immediately. The case was sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs and they sent it to Justice. The people there told my friend he needs to go to the UN High Commission for Refugees. The commission sent him back to Justice.

My friend has been advised by an EU Embassy he is entitled to bring his parents over as he is an EU citizen. There is conflicting advice from this country.

The problem is, my friend's parents cannot leave Syria without some sort of official letter from outside the region.

"What will I do next?" he asks with tears in his eyes.

Irish Independent

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