Friday 18 October 2019

In the swim: The town that has been quietly welcoming asylum seekers in their own unique way

Protests over Direct Provision centres dominated headlines this week, but in Clare's Miltown Malbay, locals have been quietly welcoming asylum seekers - and including them in the community swim

New wave: Iraqi refugee Hussein AlJoarin at the Snamhaí Sasta group at Spanish Point near Miltown Malbay in Co Clare. Photo by Steve Humphreys
New wave: Iraqi refugee Hussein AlJoarin at the Snamhaí Sasta group at Spanish Point near Miltown Malbay in Co Clare. Photo by Steve Humphreys
Lucy Ironside from Spanish Point with Anwar Hassan from Chad and Lorna Cahill (right) from Miltown Malbay. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Gabrielle Monaghan

When Hussein AlJoarin was put on a bus to the small west Clare town of Miltown Malbay in May, having spent a month at a reception centre for asylum seekers near Dublin Airport, the Iraqi thought he was being transferred to a city the size of Basra, the port city of 2.5 million inhabitants in which he grew up.

The 30-year-old had carved out a career as a journalist, director and theatre actor in Iraq after spending five years studying fine arts. But when he had to flee Iraq, he knew little about Ireland, apart from Oscar Wilde's literature and the country's welcoming reputation.

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"Before I arrived in Miltown Malbay, I searched for it on the internet," says Hussein, over coffee at The Old Bakehouse Restaurant on Miltown's Main Street, just a few metres from his emergency accommodation at The Central hostel.

"I learned that there are only five million people in all of Ireland. But they are nice people. They are very good to me."

Lucy Ironside from Spanish Point with Anwar Hassan from Chad and Lorna Cahill (right) from Miltown Malbay. Photo by Steve Humphreys
Lucy Ironside from Spanish Point with Anwar Hassan from Chad and Lorna Cahill (right) from Miltown Malbay. Photo by Steve Humphreys

With his mop of curly black hair, gentle nature and trademark leather jacket, Hussein has become a recognisable fixture in the Miltown community. He sang traditional Iraqi folk songs at the Willie Clancy festival, the annual traditional music and dancing festival for which Miltown is best known, swims most mornings with locals at nearby Spanish Point beach, brushes up his English at conversation classes put on by volunteers, and has taken part in community activities such as painting an old laneway across from The Central.

When two female diners spot Hussein at the Bakehouse, where a fellow asylum seeker from Eritrea has been playing the piano, they stop by his table and say, "we hope you get on well and - please God - you'll be able to settle in Ireland".

Hussein can never go back to Iraq, he says. On his battered phone, he shows footage of himself being arrested in Basra in 2018 and photos of injuries to his arm after allegedly being beaten up by security forces for writing a piece criticising the government. But the starkest photo of all is a close-up shot of his media colleague, whom Hussein says was killed.

Since violent protests broke out in Basra in July 2018 over a range of issues, from unemployment to an absence of safe drinking water, journalists have been assaulted, detained and prevented from covering the protests by security forces and Iran-backed militias, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2003, the city witnessed some of the heaviest fighting at the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

In Ireland, asylum seekers fleeing persecution and war have unwittingly become the subject of a new political battleground, as concerns among some rural dwellers about local hotels being added to the Direct Provision system are fanned by both mainstream politicians and far-right extremists.

Residents of Oughterard in Co Galway began a series of protests last Saturday over speculation the Department of Justice is going to turn the town's closed Connemara Gateway Hotel into a Direct Provision centre.

Protesters have vowed to continue until the department pledges not to open a centre in the town. The action follows a meeting in Oughterard on September 11, at which Independent Galway TD Noel Grealish told some 1,000 attendees that the asylum seekers housed in the former hotel would be African economic migrants wanting to "sponge off the system in Ireland" rather than "Christians" from Syria.

Government Chief Whip and Galway West Fine Gael TD Seán Kyne last week urged protesters to disassociate themselves from "right-wing elements".

'Our Magdalene laundries'

Earlier this year, a vacant hotel earmarked for asylum seekers in Roosky, on the Roscommon-Leitrim border, was subjected to two separate suspected arson attacks. Last November, a hotel in Moville, Co Donegal, was set on fire days before 100 asylum seekers were due to move in.

Due to pressure on the Direct Provision system, which actor Stephen Rea likened in a recent interview to "our Magdalene laundries", the Department of Justice has spent some €12m on accommodating asylum seekers in hotels and B&Bs in the last year.

The Central, a popular hostel during the Willie Clancy festival, was among the providers given a contract to provide beds and three meals a day to asylum seekers, who receive just €38.80 a week from the State. Hussein was among the first residents, which peaked at 31 men, though numbers have since dropped.

A meeting to inform locals of the move was not held in advance of the asylum seekers' arrival. But the community - accustomed to hosting visiting performers from around the world during its annual festival - stepped up to welcome them anyway.

In early August, a community meeting facilitated by Clare Public Participation Network introduced the new arrivals to locals, and a WhatsApp group was set up to enable locals and the new Central residents to communicate with each other. In the weeks since, volunteers have donated clothes, driven asylum seekers to dental appointments in Ennis or local GAA games, signed them up to play Gaelic football and take part in charity runs, taught them a few words of Irish, chatted to them over tea and coffee during the weekly English conversation class at the new community hall, and even took part in a drumming workshop together.

Most mornings, a volunteer picks up some of the men from The Central and drives them to Spanish Point to take part in a community beach swim called Snamhaí Sasta that was organised this summer by June Curtin, whose family owns the Armada Hotel. On Sundays, the new arrivals mingle with locals over post-swim tea, coffee and snacks and dance to country 'n' Irish tunes. As the winter draws in, volunteers have begun driving the asylum seekers to the swimming pool in nearby Lahinch.

In return, the new arrivals help out on community projects, like clearing a patch of wasteland in the GAA car park for biodiversity seeding and planting. Áine Rynne, an arts professional and a niece of singers Christy Moore and Luka Bloom, believes the diversity and the budding integration of the asylum seekers has re-energised Miltown.

Áine, who returned to Miltown last year after a long stint living in Dublin, created the Clare Carpooling page on Facebook to allow the men to request lifts because only one bus leaves Miltown for Ennis each day. Volunteering and getting to know the men has helped her feel closer to members of the local community.

"I have met and spoken to many of them and it's a very humbling and eye-opening experience," she says. "They are so interested in Irish culture and they want to learn about our history and the language."

The solidarity expressed towards the asylum seekers is also, she believes, an antidote to efforts by extremists to stoke racism in rural Ireland.

"There are plenty of people here who want to show both the community and to show Ireland that we are welcoming and that we accept diversity. We are doing everything we can to prove that and to support these people as they adapt to their new lives."

For Hussein, his new life already beckons: at the end of August, he was informed he will receive refugee status, allowing him to dream of returning to work in media and finding a place of his own to live.

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