How community kindness in Ireland is helping refugees who are fleeing 'hell on earth'
Families from war-torn Syria are finding homes, work and friendship in Irish towns and villages, writes Alan O'Keeffe
Local communities are being invited to rescue refugee families from "hell on earth". Irish towns and villages are encouraged to adopt one family each from war-torn Syria and help them find a home, a job, a school and the gift of friendship.
The new Community Sponsorship programme is based on successful refugee integration schemes in Canada and other countries. The winning formula involved communities choosing to come together to support and befriend individual families fleeing violence.
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Minister of State for Integration David Stanton said: "One town can take on one family and rescue them from hell on earth and turn their lives around. That's what it's all about."
He told the Sunday Independent that the Community Sponsorship programme in Dunshaughlin in County Meath was already producing benefits for refugees and volunteers.
The minister said: "A local man who volunteered in Dunshaughlin, unprompted, told me: 'Of all the things I've done in my life, this has given me the most personal satisfaction'."
Last week, the junior justice minister visited the Fakirs, a family of three who found a home, stability, kindness and support in the County Meath town after their long ordeal fleeing war, thanks to community sponsorship.
The minister and officials visited towns in Canada and areas of London and Manchester where the programmes operate successfully.
They were informed by local groups that uniting together to offer kindness and support to individual refugees had also strengthened bonds of friendship within local communities.
The outreach to a single family in each community is found to work better than crowding large numbers of families together in one place.
Lismore in County Waterford and a number of other communities are awaiting the arrival of single Syrian family groups from camps and cities in Lebanon and Jordan.
The Government now wants local groups, sports clubs, faith groups, and others to begin by contacting www.integration.ie for a complete template of advice and guidance on welcoming and supporting a vulnerable family into their midst.
"What is involved is a group of people coming together and saying we want to take on a family," said Mr Stanton.
"They find a house in their town or community or city that no one is using.
"What happens is the family arrives at Dublin Airport and they are met by members of the Irish community and they are taken directly to their new home.
"They become part of the community and get support for anything they need as the community will know how to get it. The community will know where to ask if they have any issues or problems," he said.
"The people who come want to contribute, want to work, to give back, and want to become part of the community. Ideally, over a relatively short period of time, they become completely independent and stand on their own two feet and they are very much part of the community and they could have friends for life.
"When a community comes together like that, a certain bonding occurs in the community itself. People work together and get to know each other," he said.
Helping the newcomers find work is a big part of local support, he said.
"We are trying to get away from the Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres that we have, which are not to be confused with the Direct Provision Centres which are for asylum seekers.
"Community Sponsorship involves refugees that we are inviting into Ireland. We are committed to bringing in 4,000 from Syria. We have brought in about 2,500 so far and we want to bring in the rest.
"If help is needed, our officials are at the end of a phone who will offer advice and assistance. If for whatever reason the sponsorship did not work out, the State will be there with our own programme that they can fall back into," he said.
Lynne Glasscoe is chairperson of the Lismore Welcome Project, which is led by a committee of eight. She said local people were looking forward to offering friendship and support to a family from Syria in the near future.
The group was formed after the Waterford Leadership Partnership invited them to take part in a pilot Community Sponsorship. Individual members of the local project group had been involved in the past in working with three refugee families who have settled successfully in nearby Cappoquin.
"I would recommend other communities to get involved. It's a win-win situation for everybody," said Ms Glasscoe.
"However much the families who arrive benefit from our support, we benefit equally as much in learning about them, their culture, and eventually they can become friends and that has been the case in Cappoquin," she said.
Eibhlin Byrne, director of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, said she was delighted the Community Sponsorship has been launched.
Irish people reaching out the helping hand of friendship to individual long-suffering families may be motivated by the thought 'there but for the grace of God go any of us'," she said.
"The first thing they ask us is when can their children start school because some of these children have not been to school for seven years.
"Adapting to life in Ireland can be difficult. So it will be a great help if they have someone who will take them by the hand, bring them to the school gate, introduce a woman to the other mothers, bring a man to the men's shed and introduce him to the other men, or go to a GAA match. Bigger countries do things in a more formal way but in Ireland we do a lot by word of mouth... So this brings people right into the very heart of communities. Kindness is at the core of all of this and that is something that can be lacking generally in life," she said.
"Large local groups are not necessary. For close support for a family, you only want six or eight people, and then there might be 20 or 30 people who say they don't have much time but they can lend you this, or give you that," she said.
She emphasised that all members of a family need support, including the mother. Providing a home for a family who have been displaced for years makes a huge difference.
"Hospitality is a cornerstone of Arab culture. The fact that women have people calling to their homes puts them in a position of strength and restores some of the dignity lost in their traumatic experience.
"For many of these women, they would not find it easy to seek out new friendships in the public arena but in their homes they offer hospitality and are in a position of strength," she said.
"It's about getting families back on their feet and then standing back and letting them get on with their lives.
"It's not a dependency culture that we are creating. It's a helping hand to allow them get back on their feet," she said.