How social farming and Google translate helped Syrian olive farmers get back to their roots in Mayo

Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

For two olive farmers from Syria, integrating into the rural town of Claremorris, Mayo, was not necessarily going to be easy.

But the main problem of a language barrier was easily overcome with Google translate, according to Brian Smyth, the Deputy CEO and National Project Manager for Social Farming in Ireland.

Finding work for the Syrian men in an environment they're familiar and comfortable with and barriers such as language soon fade, he says.

It's through the Social Farming project that the Dixon family in Mayo, opened their organic farm to a 10-week placement for 73-year-old Abdul and fellow Syrian refugee Faisal.

The Resettlement programme for Syrian refugees in Mayo is delivered by South West Mayo Development Company under contract with Mayo Co. Council and supported by the Department of Justice and Equality through the European Union Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.   

Through this, the two Syrian men were offered a chance to work and exchange skills with local farmers.

According to Brian, their housing was taken care of and grandchildren went to school and the two men started working on the farm last October. One, he said, had reasonably good english, the other didn't but with the help of a interpreter, Google translate and some sign language the common farming language was soon understood between all.

As well as taking care of apple trees, Abdul and fellow Syrian refugee Faisal feed the cattle, cut firewood and tend to the gardens and plants that grow in a polytunnel.

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The Dixons on their farm in Mayo.
The Dixons on their farm in Mayo.

According to the Dixons, they like to provide people the opportunity to be active in connecting with the farm. "It is a quiet and peaceful environment with both indoor and outdoor activities to suit our changeable weather. We feel it is important to experience the satisfaction of a normal days farming to really connect into this natural way of life.”

The Dixons were trained so they could understand the process and set up to take people onto the farm

According to Brian, it's not an employment placement, but a personal connection that allows people develop. It's also not restricted to refugees and social farming has been developing for a while, with this project funded by the Department of Agriculture under Cedra, four four years.

"We're in year three of four and this project arose out of a previous project, led by UCD and Queens and CAFRE and the Leitrim Development Company, with a cross border piloted social farming project on 20 farms.

"People said you won't put people with mental health or intellectual disabilities on a farm as it's too dangerous and you wont get insurance and the people won't want to go onto farms.

"But it was happening in Europe on a broad basis. There are so many different assets on farms and with the people on farms - the farmer, the family, the community and the people that come and go as well as the activities on the farm - the machinery, food production and gardens."

In Ireland, they began to place people in a process that would ensure they were safe guarded and where the focus was on the needs of the individuals themselves, Brian says. "The placement was designed to improve their lives."

Now, in Europe, where social farming has been in operation for 25 years, we see farmers being paid to provide these supports and it helps many people above and beyond what medication can do, he says.

"We have signed with the Brothers of Charity in Galway to will allow placements on farms for 44 weeks. They are commissioning farmers in Galway to provide support and it's planned that 12 people will be going from disability services to two or three farms in Galway this year.

Currently there are 60 farms in Ireland taking people on placement through Social Farming and 60 more farmers are being trained to join the process.

According to Brian, the people who will be able to avail of the placements include the long term unemployed, refugees, people with disabilities and people in recovery.

"A farm can deliver for anyone, in many different ways and it does not have to be a particular type of farm. We have everything from a 700-acre dairy farm to a 1ac horticulture holding working with us.

"Farms have a lot to offer the people of Ireland."

Unfortunately, he says, while they have proved it's possible to put anyone on a farm, the Irish health care system is not set up for this.

"It's an additional source of income for the farmers as they get a payment, and it can be the difference between being sustainable or not.

"But the greater value is in what the farmers can deliver."

Anyone looking to get in touch with the project, should contact

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