Speaking our Truth

Ballaghdereen Controversy

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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.

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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.

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.

The Great Story of Migration

Out of Africa

Our story as a human species is a story of migration. We came out of Africa some 60,000 years ago from the place where Homo Sapiens first evolved around 200,000 years ago. According to the fossil record this is now understood to be a place called Omo Kibish in Ethiopia.

The story tells us that we left Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, probably due to some significant climatic shift such as a sudden cooling in the Earth’s climate. Palaeontology suggests that during that climatic event the number of humans dropped to fewer than 10,000. We were barely hanging on to our tenure on the planet.

Exodus

The first group of Homo Sapiens crossed the Mandab Strait, separating what is today Yemen from Djibouti and headed along the coast first to India and then all the way to South-East Asia and Australia. Another group, about 50,000 years ago headed inland to Asia and from there colonised northern Asia and then Europe.

Some 20,000 years ago some of these early people arrived in Ireland and England. During the last Great Ice Age they disappeared completely leaving no trace. About 12,000 years ago the Mesolithic settlers arrived in these islands. In Ireland they settled along the northern coast and along the great inner lake in the Midlands.

It was the development of farming 10,000 years ago that led to the population explosion that eventually gave rise to empires, the great early migration voyages and the spread of Homo Sapiens to the ends of the earth.

The Great Western Migration Story

Another great migration began 500 years ago with the European voyages of exploration and the colonisation by European settlers (the first illegal immigrants) in different parts of the world. Between 1880 and 1930, over 27 million immigrants arrived in the United States, mainly from Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, Russia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, and Sweden. in 1869, for example, the number of immigrants arriving in the ports of the United States was 352,569. Source: The American Annual Cyclopaedia, 1869.

The Contemporary Story

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The current migration story is just one more episode in that millennia-long history of movement, conquest and settlement. Our contemporary story began after World War II with internal movement of peoples within Europe. To a lesser extent this proves has continued with labour mobility within Europe following the Nice Treaty and the accession of new members of the European Union. In 2013, for example, there were around 7 million EU citizens — or 3.3% of the EU’s total labour force — working and living in a member country other than their country of citizenship. That trend of internal migration has deepened and continued, to the benefit of the host countries.

In terms of sheer scale, however, the present numbers of migrating peoples around the world is unlike anything that we have seen before. So far this year (2016) almost 200,000 people have arrived in Europe from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The story of migration is a human story. It is in our DNA. Huge human, cultural and economic benefits have occurred because of it. The UK National Health Service, for example, the biggest employer in Europe, could not function with the presence of health workers from India and Asia. The challenge for governments and international organisations is to manage this movement of peoples humanely and wisely. So far, we’ve not done a good job as we stumble from crisis to crisis.

We hope for a new story of migration that will place values of compassion, care and understanding at the heart of European policies. Is it too much to ask?

Listen to some TED talks about Migration

No More Fences – Brother Alois (Taizé)

Across the world, women, men and children are being forced to leave their land. It is their distress that creates in them a motivation to leave. That distress is stronger than all the barriers that impede their move.

I can vouch for this, since recently I spent a few days in Syria.

In the city of Homs, the extent of the destruction caused by the bombing is unimaginable. Much of the city is in ruins. I saw a ghost town and I felt the despair of the inhabitants of the country.

Today Syrians are flooding into Europe; tomorrow it will be other peoples. The large flows of migration that we are seeing are inevitable. Not realising this would be shortsighted.

Looking for ways to regulate the flow of migrants is legitimate and even necessary, but to want to prevent it by building walls bristling with barbed wire is absolutely useless.

When we are confronted by this situation, fear is understandable. Resisting fear does not mean that it has to disappear, but that it should not paralyse us. We must not allow the rejection of foreigners to take root in our minds, for the refusal of the other is the seed of barbarism.

As a first step, the rich countries should acquire a clearer awareness that they have their share of responsibility for the wounds of history that have caused and continue to cause massive migration, particularly from Africa or the Middle East.

And today, some specific political choices remain a source of instability in these regions. A second approach should cause them to go beyond the fear of foreigners, of cultural differences, and begin courageously to shape the new face that migration is already giving to our societies in the West.

Instead of seeing foreigners as a threat to our standard of living or our culture, we should welcome them as members of the same human family. And we shall find that although the flow of refugees and migrants certainly creates difficulties, it can also be an opportunity.

Recent studies show the positive impact of migration on the population and the economy. Why do so many speeches emphasise the difficulties so much and never highlight the positive aspects?

Those who knock at the door of countries richer than their’s cause these countries to learn solidarity. Do they not help them to gain a new vitality?

I would like to mention here our experience at Taizé. It is humble and limited but very real. Since last November, in connection with the local government, the community of municipalities to which our village belongs and local associations, we have been hosting at Taizé 11 young migrants from Sudan—most from Darfur—and from Afghanistan, all coming from the “jungle” of Calais.

Their arrival has sparked an impressive show of solidarity in our region: volunteers come to teach them French, doctors treat them for free, neighbours take them to outings in the area and for bike rides….

Surrounded by friendship in this way, these young people who have gone through tragic events are rebuilding their lives. And such a simple contact with Muslims changes the outlook of those around them.

In the village, these young people have also been welcomed by families from various countries—Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia, Rwanda, Egypt, Iraq—who came to Taizé in past decades and who are now an integral part of our wider community.

All have experienced great suffering but bring vitality to our village as a result of the richness and diversity of their cultures.

If such an experience is possible in a small region, why cannot it be undertaken on a much larger scale?

It is wrong to think that xenophobia is the sentiment most widely shared—often there is above all a great deal of ignorance. Once personal encounters are possible, fears give way to fellowship. This involves seeing things from the other’s point of view. Mutual friendship is the only way to prepare for a future of peace.

By taking on together the responsibilities required by the wave of migration, rather than by playing on people’s fears, political leaders could help the European Union regain a momentum that has been greatly slowed down.

A whole younger generation in Europe aspires to this openness. We are aware of this, since for years we have been welcoming on our hill of Taizé, for week-long international meetings, tens of thousands of young people across the continent. They see that the building up of Europe finds its true meaning only if it shows solidarity with other continents and with the poorest peoples.

Many young Europeans have difficulty understanding their governments when they declare the intent to close their borders. These young people ask rather that the globalisation of economics be associated with a globalisation of solidarity, and that it be expressed in particular by a dignified and responsible welcome offered to migrants.

Many of them are ready and willing to contribute to this. Let us remain confident that generosity also has a major role to play in the life of the city.

Article by Brother Alois Löser is Prior of the Ecumenical Community of Taizé in France

Homelessness in Manchester

Could you take a little time out to view the YouTube below. It is a powerful BBC documentary on the experience of being homeless in Manchester.

Manchester could be anywhere. It could be Dublin, Belfast, Salford, Washington or London.

No one seeks to be homelessness. Many people in our society are only one pay cheque away from being homeless.

One of the points made in the video is that family breakdown is (in Western countries) one of the major contributory factors to homelessness. Yet no one speaks about this.

Since the 1970s there has been a shift in public policy away from supporting families to supporting individuals. Both dimensions of support are essential. Blame the poet Philip Larkin. He was one of the first to articulate the view that families are ‘bad news’. Ever since, a suspicion of the family as an institution had become endemic among shapers of public polity.

Read the following review of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis in First Things. It is highly instructive on the correlation between family breakdown and social breakdown.

Two solutions are needed for homelessness:

  • More social housing for all who need it
  • Support for families in all their expressions

The Children of Aleppo

February 9th, 2016

This morning the Winter cold bites deeper in the city of Aleppo in Syria. Food is running out as the Russian and Syrian Government siege of the city nears its inevitable end game. Fuel supplies, from ISIS held areas, is drying up. This means that homes are no longer heated.

We are told that the number of refugees fleeing the city for the Turkish border may reach 600, 000 in the coming days. The Turkish government has sealed its border and is obliging refugees to remain in refugee camps that have been established on the Syrian side of the border. Such camps tend to remain permanent. Refugees in search of a better life have no place to go.

Syria’s civil war has taken a dreadful toll on children. More than 10,000 children have been killed and 3 million have been displaced from their homes. Another 1.1 million now live as refugees outside Syria.

A BBC reporter based in Aleppo, Rami Jarah, offered a chilling account of life in the city on the BBC World Service this morning. He observed that he has noticed that parents in Syria no longer hold their children by the hand. Why? Because they instinctively are aware that their children can be taken from them at any moment. So, they automatically are distancing themselves emotionally from their children. This phenomenon has been documented elsewhere for other situations of profound social dislocation.

In all wars children are the first victims. This war is more tragic than most. And the international community appears to be unable to do anything. Or maybe our impotence has become a weary indifference.

Listen to Rami Jarah’s BBC report here

See the PBS Frontline report on the plight of children in Syria here