Speaking our Truth

Ballaghdereen Controversy

mary_gallagher_ballaghderreen

Mary Gallagher’s Shop in Ballaghderreen

The recent announcement of the Irish Government’s decision to locate 80 Syrian refugees in a recently refurbished hotel in Ballaghdereen in County Roscommon has prompted much comment, both local and national. Much of the commentary has focused on the absence of consultation with the local community in advance. Some of it has been of the humorous variety: “Roscommon? Refugees don’t deserve this!”.

The Government’s intends to establish the Abbeyfield hotel as an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) which will receive Syrian refugees for a limited period of time. On completion of the EROC programme refugees will be dispersed and housed in different parts of the country, mostly in donated accommodation suitable for families.

The issue has activated a neuralgic nerve in the public consciousness. While most people are openly welcoming to refugees, there are also many who feel that “locals” should come first, including the local homeless and people on the housing list. As it happens, there are 286 vacant houses in and around Ballaghdereen, the so-called “ghost estates” built during the boom era when so much money flowed into speculative construction. The local area plan (LAP) compiled by Roscommon County Council notes:

Growth in Ballaghaderreen particularly, was fuelled by the presence of the tax incentives (at 21.5% between 2002 and 2006) which has left many unoccupied and unfinished houses in the town (Local Area Plan 2012–2018, page 9).

The local public representatives support the LAP in its ambition to rid the town once and for all of its ‘backwater’ image and to create, in the words of the plan “a culturally rich town that celebrates cultural diversity”. A refugee reception centre was probably not envisaged by the planners. In addition, locals interviewed by the media expressed disappointment that the newly-refurbished hotel which, they believed, would be a key element in implementing the plan for a more vibrant local economy would no longer be available.

John O'Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)
John O’Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)

The Ballaghderreen situation could probably be replicated across rural Ireland wherever a similar proposal might be made. Speaking at the Céifin Institute Conference in 1999, the late John O’Donohue, noted that one of the persistent and corrosive problems afflicting Irish society i the urban-rural divide. The city simply does not understand rural life. The language used by the city bureaucrats, he said, “is a language determined by the city and is usually not an understanding language” (John O’Donohue, *Walking on the Pastures of Wonder”, 2015, p. 139). In light of Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, we are only too well aware of the dangers to society posed by elite biases and prejudices.

On the other hand, the Ballaghderreen narrative is not entirely shaped by opposition and prejudice. In fact, quite the contrary. Many from the local community have expressed their desire to be welcoming to refugees and newcomers. One lady, interviewed on RTE’s Prime Time programme, the owner of the haberdashery and clothes shop in the town, has become something of a national celebrity for her straightforward assertion of traditional moral values, shaped by generations of living and working together in community:

We were brought up to think that if somebody was needy — I’m not talking about someone who just come to work and they’re alright, they’re okay, they’ve money coming in every week. But it somebody is needy and they were driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?

How could you say no? You’d be betraying every single thing that we ourselves came from.

That statement is at once an unashamed espousal of inherited deeply held community values as well as an equally generous welcoming of ‘the stranger in our midst’.

Pope Francis, in his statement for World Refugee and Migration Day, 2017, confronted us with a similar challenge, couched in biblical language, to that offered by Mary Gallagher. Citing the Hebrew Bible he said:

“Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.

It is difficult for us, in these turbulent and disruptive times, to grasp the profound implications of what is happening. Sometimes, the events in history that have, in the long run, the most positive longer term effects are those which are born in chaos and disruption. A bit like the story of the universe itself.

In the Pope’s remarks it is not too difficult to hear the voice of Teilhard de Chardin. Something is being born in the present chaos. Something that brings us that nano-step nearer to universal communion. As Catholics, every time we gather for Eucharist we are reminded of this ultimate goal of human history, what the liturgy often refers to in the language of ‘gathering together’. This is not a reference to an initial pre-historic unity but a yet-to-be-realised future realisation of God’s dream for the Universe, “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians, 1:10).

So, despite the practical political difficulties arising from the present situation, we can, on reflection, being to discover and appreciate a wider horizon for hope and action.

Edmund Rice School Pupils and Homelessness

Last year a gathering of young people took place in Mount Sion, Waterford to reflect on the homelessness issue. It was decided that the students themselves would engage in a campaign to raise awareness about this issue. This campaign would take place first of all in the schools concerned: Ardscoil na Mara, Tramore, CBS Midleton, The Abbey Community School, Wateford and CBS, Carlow. It was hoped that eventually a petition would be handed in to the Minister with responsibility for housing.

This has now taken place. Just after Christmas when the schools re-opened following the holidays, a petition with 10,000 signatures was handed in to Housing Minister, Simon Coveney, T.D.

Explicit reference was made to the Edmund Rice education dimension of the reflection that had taken place in the schools and with the pupils involved.

Read all about it here

On a related note, the Edmund Rice Camps met last Saturday in the Province Centre in Dublin to coordinate the annual Coats for the Homeless campaign. With the assistance of the Edmund Rice Camp Leaders coats and other appropriate clothing are collected for distribution among the Dublin Homeless. The Peter McVerry Trust is also involved.

Well done to all who took part in both initiatives!

Dearth of data and information about youth in the juvenile justice system

#jjusticeblog

It’s interesting how stories about child protection and youth justice from different parts of the world often mirror what’s happening here in Ireland.

A story from the U.S. this week reports on the dearth of data and information about youth in the juvenile justice system.

The report is called Denied Existence  and calls on the authorities to implement a comprehensive juvenile-justice data collection system.

This certainly reflects the Irish situation, where we know very little about these youth.

The Courts Services collates scant detail about young people in court, and monitoring of oversight of outcomes for the 3,000 plus young people moving through the youth courts is almost nonexistent.

A recent audit of the Irish youth justice states: Currently, a centralised source of information regarding young offenders and young offending in Ireland does not exist. As outlined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, this information is essential to establish effective systems for data collection and to ensure that the data collected is evaluated and used to assess progress in implementation, to identify problems and to inform all policy development for children.

It points out that as far back as 1985, a government report stated a “continuing need for research analysis, discussion and deeper understanding of the issue of juvenile offenders in Ireland.”

As with the U.S. study, the Irish paper highlights the “need for an independent agency responsible for maintaining a centralised, contemporaneous resource of data pertaining to young offenders and youth offending in Ireland.”

How long more will we be waiting?

Refugees: The Resettlement Option

We have all been rightly horrified at the plight of refugees who are faced to confront the dangers of the sea in their journeys to Europe. These journeys are undertaken not only at great personal risk, the refugees who find themselves in this precarious predicament are victims of an exploitative multi-billion dollar trafficking industry.

After World War II thousands of displaced people within Europe are facilitated in finding a new home elsewhere in Europe or even in the United States. Some were assisted in relocating in countries as diverse as Ireland and Israel.

Resettlement involves the sponsoring of refugees and the provision of protection and the possibility of beginning a new life in another country. For many refugees, returning home ie not an option. As Somali refugee Warsaw Shire said in her now famous poem, No One Leaves Home, “you only run for the border when the whole city runs as well.” There is no going back. That is the situation in which many find themselves.

European Response

In 2015, as Europe confronted its migration crisis with thousands pouring over borders heading for Germany and Sweden, the Council of Europe sought to enter into agreements with European countries to establish a resettlement option for refugees. This would mean that vulnerable people seeking asylum in a European country could do so without risking their lives. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the right to asylum, a person at risk can seek asylum in another country. Europe never envisaged the combination of factors which would lead to the current tidal wave of migrant flows. It is now time to put in place a structured policy for resettlement.

The European Union has ac very promoted refugee rest element over the past ten years, including rest element as an essential part of the external dimension of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Coordination and resourcing of European resettlement has been further strengthened by the 2013 establishment of the Joint EU Resettlement Programme.

Fourteen countries, including Ireland and the United Kingdom, have signed up to the resettlement policy. This is involves a commitment to the provision of resettlement place. At the moment this number is so small as to be almost derisory. Why is this? It is partly because states have not begun to reflect on the benefits of such a policy and how it might be implemented. It remains still as a ‘nice to have’ option. But it is not taken seriously.

International Catholic Commission for Migration

Enter the NGO sector. The International Catholic Commission for Migration (ICMC) has taken resettlement seriously. Working with partners in a number of European countries, it has begun to establish a viable option for resettlement of refugees.

ICMC has established a project called the SHARE Network. This project calls for a network of European cities willing to offer resettlement places to migrants.ICMC is advocating for the provision annually of 20,000 resettlement places across Europe. Currently, some 7000 people have been resettled by ICMC through this scheme. Obviously there is room for further development of this initiative across Europe. Given the need, there is an urgent need for an expansion of the programme.

A feature of the SHARE European Resettlement Network is that it is focused on local civil society organisations, including municipalities and local NGOs. Local communities can engage with this programme to offer resettlement places.

In Ireland St Catherine’s Community Services Centre in Carlow is a partner with ICMC in resettling refugees. The Centre has worked with State agencies to ensure the provision of services for incoming families:

Our Resettlement Committee ensured that ‘arrival plans’ for the families were put in place before the families arrived. We have met every six weeks since then to oversee the development of the programme. At each committee meeting, the resettlement worker updates us on the work that has taken place. The meetings also provide a forum to discuss important matters such as mainstreaming, education and health and then to agree a co-ordinated response to any issues.

Carlow has successfully integrated members of the vulnerable Myanmar Rohingya community whose lives are often in danger in their own country. The 13 families accepted by Carlow has been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh since 1992.

If only this programme could be expanded on a European basis linking municipalities and communities in a common humanitarian effort.

Leaving Cert Exams: 7 Years of Hell in 7 Days

An extremely powerful piece from one of our students.

#butterfly

Leaving Cert Exams: 7 Years of Hell in 7 Days

7 years I have been in the second level education system in Ireland.

7 whole years.

I have undergone 7 years of scaremongering, of judgements, threats and dismission and condemnation.

4 years of being terrified to go to school in case I had forgotten something or had overlooked some work.

4 years of shaking so badly that I physically couldn’t write.

4 years of getting about 3 or 4 hours of sleep on weeknights because I was so scared of the following day.

My experience of primary and secondary education in Ireland has shattered my self-esteem, obliterated my self-confidence and annihilated my sense of my own self-worth.

It has been 5 years since I had my first major panic attack.

17 years of fighting anxiety and depression on my own because my faith in others and my ability to trust anyone with anything had been destroyed.

All of this, and much more, has led up to 7 days. I was given 7 days to essentially prove myself to others, to prove my intelligence and to make my teachers look good. At least, it would have if I had stayed in mainstream school. Most of my teachers there were only concerned that the exam students’ results made them look good in others’ eyes.

In the centre it is different. There is none of that pressure. There is no sense that the leaving certificate is the be-all and end-all of your life. Yes, it is important but your results should not determine your self-worth. For me that was the hardest thing to wrap my head around. I was indoctrined into the educational systems view of academia. I whole-heartedly believed that anything less than 100% means you failed, and because you ‘failed’ then you are worth nothing. Exam results were the only thing that mattered, it was irrelevant whether you were physically and mentally healthy as long as you got 600 points in your Leaving Certificate.

I have fought tooth and nail in order to live up to these expectations and to uphold them. To an extent, I still do believe that exams are the only thing that matters. However, I have to acknowledge that while I know I will not get a ‘perfect’ Leaving Certificate, or even a ‘great’ one, the fact that I went into that room every day and sat there and attempted those exams has to be the most important thing. I gave up striving for 600 points quite a while ago. I have had panic attacks. I have had little sleep. I have had some excruciatingly bad days. But I did it. I fought and today I am 44 days without self harming. I sat my exams, I did what I could. They are nearly over, by 4:31pm tomorrow it will all be over. The Leaving Certificate will be over. That prospect is absolutely petrifying, what now…?

 

 

A Story from Dadaab

In these June days in the Northern hemisphere students are sitting exams. Today, June 9th, Irish students will file into examination halls to begin a grueling three-week marathon of examinations to earn their graduating secondary-school qualification, the Leaving Certificate. The future of many students depend on the grades they achieve. High grades will admit them to desirable courses in the top college; sucess will lead to high-income future careers. For all Irish Leaving Certificate, it is a rite of passage whose iconic status has been guaranteed by generations of anecdotal folklore.

But spare a thought for students in refugee camps world-wide who share a similar passion for life and for a fulfilling personal future. These students may or may not have been lucky enough to have had access to schooling. For many, their schooling will have been interrupted by war, famine, disease, police brutality, racism and the sheer hardship of refugee journeys. Some students – themselves newcomers to Ireland – who sit their exams this morning will have known such horrors in their young life’s journey.

Reading Ben Rawlence’s book, City of Thorns, I came across a story that illustrates the suffering, ambition, and courage of these young students.

Kheyro’s Story

In 1992 the first flood of refugees from Somalia arrived in the North Eastern region of Kenya, making their way to the UN camp at Dadaab, today the largest refugee camp in the world. Rukia, a Somali woman, walked for ten days with an infant girl, Kheyro, on her back. In 2012, Ruykia and Kheyro are still in the Dadaab camp. That was the year Western aid workers were kidnapped by Al-Shabaab. In response to the kidnap, the UN and the NGOs retreated to their compounds. The refugees were urged to fend for themselves.

That same year Kheyro was sitting her Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). She had been lucky and clever enough to have been among the 500 students who had gained a scholarship to study in the one secondary school operating in the camp. Her mother had spent grueling hot days out in the scrubland beyond the camp gathering firewood that could be sold to pay for a school uniform (€15) and for books. Wood sold at €0.10 per load. Some of the money was needed to purchase two batteries for a torch so that Kheyro could study at night. Sometimes the family went without food to pay for school essentials.

Only Two Ways Out

Kheyro was fired with ambition. She knew, as did everyone else in the camp, that there are only two ways out of the camp: through a UN resettlement programme or through academic scholarships provided by the Canadian government for 20 students each year who achieve the highest grades. For the rest, there is the prospect of a paid job with a UN agency, and, perhaps, eventually resettlement or Kenyan citizenship.

Such was the determination of Kheyro and some of her friends to succeed that in their final examination year they pooled money to pay €6 a month each for the cost of renting a house in the camp where they could study together. Here they studied in the evenings by the light of two naked light bulbs between forty-three students. On achieving success in the KCSE depended Kheyro’s future and that of her family.

Insecurity and Corruption

Beyond the hut where they studied the security situation continued to deteriorate. The exams had started. Kenyan police were on edge and had already begun to treat all refugees in the camp, especially newcomers, as if they were members of Al-Shabaab. Young people were rounded up and beaten. Shacks were over-turned and destroyed. Shops in the camp (we’re talking tin-hut affairs selling basic items) were set ablaze by the police and the tin cash boxes robbed.

That year, 2012, in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, 411,783 candidates were sitting the KCSE. Only one-quarter were girls. Kheyro was up against it. It was not, and could not be, a level playing field. Teachers, examination officials, invidulators could all be bribed. It is alleged that 1.3 million Kenyan shillings (€11,300) changed hands that year in bribes to education officials. Kheyro had nothing on her side except determination, courage and self-belief.

Two days after the exams started, a car carryng exam materials was attacked at a border post with Somalia a few miles from the camp. Al-Shabaan, like their Islamist co-affiliates in Nigeria, Boko-Haram, had quickly understood that the battle against the West could be cheaply ramped up by targetting education facilities. Local radio broadcasted the daily attacks. Luckily, the Kenyan education authorities held their nerve until the exams finished. The following day the first massive IED bomb exploded in the camp.

Aftermath

Kheyro was successful in her examinations. Today, she works as a professional with Handicap International in Kenya and is providing for her family.

Perhaps some Irish students, and others, who are sitting exams in these days may reflect on the challenges facing young people in other parts of the world.

Dadaab Camp, Kenya

Just two days ago the Kenya Government informed the UNCHR that the Dadaab Refugee Camp in northern Kenya would be closed in November 2016. This camp has been in operation since 1991 and has housed mainly Somali refugees. It is home to 320,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. Zataari, the refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan, houses 80,000 people. Dadaab is four times bigger.

While we continue to see the European migration crisis in the headlands and see nightly images of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea being picked up by EU search and rescue ships, we tend to forget the 20 million refugees who lives in protracted situations like those in Dadaab. Around the world some 60 million people are displaced persons caused by wars, famine and climate change crises.

Dadaab camp itself began in 1991 as a refugee camp to house displaced persons from Somali. There were initially 90,000 people in the camp. It has grown exponentially since, its numbers varying with the seasons of the conflict situation in Somalia itself.
kenya_police_dadaab_camp
In the last two years, the Kenyan Government has become increasing convinced that the camp is enabling the presence of Al-Shabaab militants in the area and wants it closed. Kenyan miltiary forces have been engaged for some time in an on-going operation against Al-Shabaab within Somalia itself. MSF personnel have been kidnapped by Al-Shabaab within the camp and sold on to the pirates on the coast.

Damian McSweeney, an Irish Aid representative in the camp and a lecturer at University College Cork, believes that the Kenyan military operation has as its long-term goal the complete refoulement of Somali displaced persons back to Somalia itself. This will expose them to violence, a precarious living environement and, perhaps, a long-term period of insecurity beyond the reach of the humanitarian agencies. Agencies such as the UNHCR are extremely concerned about this evolving situation.

Let us not forgot the Dadaab Camp refugees.