Saturday 14 December 2019

Syrian refugees will get a warm welcome - but integration is key

Stranded Syrian refugees at a camp near Athens, Greece. Some 240 Syrians are to be temporarily housed in the Roscommon town of Ballaghaderreen Photo: Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
Stranded Syrian refugees at a camp near Athens, Greece. Some 240 Syrians are to be temporarily housed in the Roscommon town of Ballaghaderreen Photo: Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The people of Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, surely deserve a round of applause for the way in which - so far - they have welcomed the prospect of 240 Syrian refugees being placed in their small town as an emergency measure.

They're not pleased with the way the Department of Justice organised it without any consultation, yet the people of the town have shown a thoroughly decent attitude in welcoming the strangers and giving asylum to the refugees.

Mary Gallagher was especially impressive in the way she spoke about how Irish people would identify with the refugees. That many of the group will be children or young people afflicted by war makes it a particularly touching endeavour.

Observing how immigrants from the Middle East will settle into life in a small Irish town - which has had its own problems of unemployment and emigration - will also be a source of social study. It's helpful to observe and learn from such experiences.

Being a refugee is awful, being driven out of your country is heart-scorching. I encountered many Syrian refugees in the Lebanon not long ago and it was pitiful.

Any group contains diverse individuals, and among the women and children there were mothers who strove mightily to keep spick and span the poor little tin huts in which they were housed, and there were others who had given up the struggle and could only lament.

There were families that tried to make a small garden out of a patch of ground, or build a hut for birds, and there were those who just waited passively for a United Nations agency to intervene.

But two common threads emerged. In an ideal world, most would have wanted to go back to their own homes. And the foremost concern for most of the mothers was education for their children. They wanted the children to go to school. The local Evangelical Christian mission, seeking to provide education, was attracting many adherents.

Syrians can be Muslim or Christian (the Syriac language is a dialect of Aramaic, which is the language spoken by Jesus Christ) and the religious question will be a significant element in Ballaghaderreen. I'm sure it will be handled with tact and respect.

Yet when it comes to a wider culture, while tact and respect are imperative, I also hope the incomers will be strongly encouraged to integrate into Irish life. Translators will be hired to overcome language difficulties, but may I suggest translators should only be brought in on a temporary basis.

In Britain, the ubiquity of translators for immigrant people has often been disastrous, notably for women.

As long as interpreters provide a facility to speak to incomers in their own language, the women, especially, don't learn English. When women in any community do not learn the host language, that keeps them apart. And keeping women apart often means keeping them oppressed and subservient.

A priority is to insist that the incomers to Co Roscommon master English (Irish too, by all means, but realistically English is the lingua franca of the western world).

It's natural that any group of migrants wishes to retain and respect its own traditions within its own circles - that has happened everywhere. The Irish in America, the Ukrainians in Canada, the Greeks in Australia, the Jewish communities in their many migrations have retained and celebrated their own national and religious traditions within their homes, their clubs, their community gatherings, their churches and synagogues.

This pride in one's roots is enriching and natural.

But outside the home and community circle, the host culture should prevail, and incomers should always be encouraged to integrate with it.

Last week, Joe Duffy's 'Liveline' programme featured a reported episode about a Pakistani woman who, having entered a property deal with an Irish landlord, refused to shake hands with him, on the grounds it is against her religion.

Indeed, a strict Muslim woman does not shake hands with a man outside her family circle. It is regarded as too intimate a gesture. These episodes have also occurred in Britain, where there is a strong Islamic presence. I know of it happening in Oldham, in Lancashire, and in Bradford, in Yorkshire. But I would suggest this isn't acceptable in our societies. If you are doing business in the public realm, then you shake on a deal. Do as you like in the privacy of your home or community, but adhere to the custom of the country in public.

It is now acknowledged the British made serious mistakes in facilitating "multiculturalism" in education and other areas of public life. Trevor Phillips, the black British former equality commission chairman, is now one of the leading critics of the multicultural policies which, he believes, have led to the alienation of young people rather than to their flourishing within the host society.

The message is getting across in Europe. The European Court of Human Rights last week ruled Muslim families in Switzerland could not prevent their daughters from using mixed school swimming facilities, after a Turkish couple claimed they were entitled to insist on separate ones.

Ballaghaderreen could become a template of how to respond to refugees - with the kindness and compassion which has been expressed, but also recalling that there's a long tradition of incomers becoming "more Irish than the Irish themselves".

Irish Independent

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