The people of Ballaghaderreen hadn’t even taken down their Christmas lights when the media circus rolled into town last Friday. RTE, national and local newspapers and local radio stations were there to gauge the local reaction to the Department of Justice announcement that up to 200 Syrian refugees would be relocated to the town over the next couple of years.
A successful meeting aimed at suggesting ways the people of Ballaghaderreen could welcome the refugees was held in Spell’s Bar on Monday night where the vast majority of the 100 or so in attendance responded positively to the call for support.
Debbie Beirne, who organised the meeting, was extremely pleased with the response.
“There was a great response and I’m very, very proud of the people of Ballaghaderreen. There was great enthusiasm and we were inundated with good wishes from those who couldn’t make the meeting.”
Debbie said she understands the initial anger following the announcement by the Department of Justice.
“The anger is understandable and it’s due to a lack of information. Information is still minimal but it is slowly coming through. There are a lot of unresolved issues and people are fearful but these people are human beings. It’s about friendship and acceptance and accepting these people as human beings. It’s so important not to bring these people into another hostile atmosphere,” she said.
Asked what the community was doing in order to welcome the refugees to the town, Debbie said: “We’ve started to compile a directory of resources. So we are actually creating this directory to show what we can offer. We are a town working together. It’s not new what we’re doing, it’s simple but powerful and it’s all about spaces where we can integrate.”
The overriding feeling in Ballaghaderreen on Tuesday afternoon was one of pulling together and stepping up to the plate in order to welcome the refugees. Customers in Spell’s Bar assured me that the town would offer a warm welcome but that there was definite anger at how the Department of Justice had approached the situation and concern as to how the town’s already stretched services would cope.
One man, who did not wish to be named, told me that the town would be “welcoming, but wary” following what other customers perceived as “an underhanded way of doing things.”
Other customers wondered how the town’s GPs and schools would cope with the new arrivals and admitted that they were disappointed that the Abbeyfield Hotel, where the refugees would be accommodated, would not now be opened to the public.
A woman, who gave me short shrift, said the town’s doctors are already stretched: “You need to make an appointment with the GP three days before you’re sick!”
These feelings were echoed elsewhere in the town on Tuesday morning with a number of people refusing to speak to this reporter.
One man who did speak to me was local business owner, Sajjad Hussein, who is originally from Pakistan.
He said: “I’ve been in business ten years in this town, the people are very, very good here.
“They are very friendly and welcoming. Some people are disappointed with the way the Government and the Department of Justice is dealing with this but nobody has a problem with the Syrian refugees.”
Sajjad said the meeting in Spell’s the previous night highlighted the positive feeling within the town.
“I’ve talked with people in my barber shop and also at the meeting and I think they’ll be very welcome.
“Obviously the Government has to take some action and they need to look at the facilities because the people have concerns.”
Sajjad added that the refugees had suffered enough and that they didn’t need much from the people of Ballaghaderreen.
“The people suffered a lot already and we should be very positive with them and very friendly with them. Simply smile and say hello, they don’t want too much from us. They just want friendship from us,” he added.
So while there remains some anger and concern about the announcement and the lack of available services, locals have taken it upon themselves to provide a warm welcome for the 80 or so refugees due to arrive in the next few weeks.
There seems to be an understanding that there are two separate issues at stake – the way in which the Department of Justice has gone about their business and the imminent arrival of people who have suffered a great deal.
The sense is that the people of the town will rise above their anger directed entirely at the Department and offer a safe and welcoming haven for those who have already suffered enough.