Imagine for a moment that another civil war has broken out in this country and that over half the population has been butchered or made homeless and that the only refuge is a perilous journey across the sea to mainland Europe. Imagine arriving at a reception centre having lost your livelihood, home, family members and friends. Imagine not being able to understand what officials are saying and not being able to communicate your own anguish.
Those fleeing the war in Syria don’t have to use their imagination; they are currently living this nightmare. According to John Roycroft and Eugene Banks, they will arrive with nothing more than “the clothes on their backs.” That of course isn’t entirely true, as most will also arrive with deep psychological scars and a level of fear unknown to you or I.
The debacle in Ballaghaderreen isn’t their fault. It is highly doubtful that anyone from Syria has ever spun a globe and pinpointed Ballaghaderreen as a possible travel destination. The decision to move them there and the subsequent fall-out is a result of poor planning and even worse communication from the Department of Justice and those involved in the relocation of refugees to this country. It was an abysmal public relations exercise which, if allowed to fester, will create an ‘us and them’ scenario in Ballaghaderreen. A scenario which is never too far from the surface no matter where you are in the world.
There are many arguments for and against the relocation of refugees to Ballaghaderreen and it seems we’re caught between head and heart. The prevailing argument against their arrival is the lack of services available in the town – although how could the authorities have known this given that they didn’t consult any of the local politicians, healthcare practitioners or schools?
The argument for their arrival is one from the heart. Sure didn’t we pitch up in places like New York when it was our turn to flee? The Irish didn’t have it easy and it took generations to improve their status in their new homes. But we were given a safe haven and a chance at a better life.
We know very little about the Syrian refugees other than they are in transit from either a camp in Greece or a very volatile part of the world – The Middle East. We are told that they have been interviewed, fingerprinted and Garda vetted but that doesn’t allay some of the fears we have. This is another instance where the authorities have let us down. It’s hard to trust officials when it comes to background checks and Garda vetting when they can’t be bothered to tell us about the incoming arrivals in the first place.
Nevertheless, hapless governments and substandard services aside, we are very fortunate in this country. Our young people might still emigrate for employment but they get to choose from a wide variety of destinations. Not so long ago there were no choices and we were forced to prove ourselves amidst hostile welcomes in places like the UK and further afield. It galvanised us but it also prevented us from integrating, which in turn caused social problems and resentment.
The Syrians have had very little say in their next destination but our attitude to them will dictate the choices they do have once they are here. Of course the people of Ballaghaderreen have every right to resent the decision and the way it was implemented, but the opportunity is there to create something positive out of a situation that has been handled extremely poorly.