It was a cold, wet and fairly windy Friday morning outside Roscommon Post Office, but those chilly weather conditions still did not stop the old man with the cap and the stick from halting to chat as he walked out of the building after collecting his pension. He proceeded to give a very sober analysis of events in Ukraine to this writer and a friend who was there with me on a humanitarian mission.
“I’m nearly 90 years of age and I never thought I would ever see the day again when men and women and children would be killed again like this on the streets of a city in Europe” he said. “It’s just unbelievable to think that we have this whole situation happening all over again – a madman threatening the world – and we can’t do anything about it. I am sick looking at it”.
The gentleman who uttered those words didn’t stay for long on the street but the powerful sentiment he delivered certainly stayed with me for the rest of the day and has been stuck in my mind ever since. Here was a gentleman old enough to remember the devastating events of the Second World War and passionate enough to not only speak out about the Russian invasion of Ukraine over seventy years later, but to then put his hand in his pocket and place a ten euro note into the collection bucket I was holding outside the post office.
Rising to the challenge
I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I am no longer involved in reporting the news at national level on a daily basis, or the fact that we all live so many thousands of miles away from the events in Ukraine, but like so many other people, I feel entirely helpless and hopeless about the wicked war that is happening every day now in Ukraine and the brutal manner in which the Russian regime is slowly but surely brushing the Ukrainian people aside, murdering and injuring men, women and children and giving the two fingers to the rest of the world. So last week, when a friend of mine in the Lions International movement suggested we play a part at local level in our Lions club in supporting the thousands and thousands of refugees coming this way, I was immediately interested in helping out.
Our Lions club in Roscommon has a proud tradition of stepping into the breach to not only help the poor and the vulnerable locally, but around the world too. We have also risen to the challenge in putting basic recreational facilities in place for the young people of our own town and county in the superb Quad youth centre we developed on the Circular Road ten years ago. So I knew when I put a message up on the club WhatsApp group last week that our loyal members would respond in any way they could. Lions clubs were once just the remit of older men – a sort of a club for business folk – but the profile of the movement nationally has now changed. We in the Roscommon club come from all walks of life and have already had our first female President, so it’s now a club that enjoys a more general appeal and is open to all.
By Tuesday evening of last week, we had a plan in place to see how we could try and make a real difference. We gathered in Gleeson’s Townhouse for a meeting with two ladies who have been directly impacted by the invasion of Ukraine. Both women live here in Roscommon and had already given us first-hand accounts of family members deeply scarred by the violence and the bomb attacks on their relatives’ homes.
One lady – based in the south of the county – had already spoken of the fact that her parents were both over 75 years of age and were effectively trapped in their homes in a city near the Russian border. She told us they felt too old to flee the city and would now stay. In the end she was too distressed to speak at the meeting but the second lady who did attend told the harrowing story of how her brother-in-law had been impacted and the mother of the house forced to flee to Poland with young children…at only a couple of hours’ notice.
When I came home on that Tuesday night I asked my own two young sons how they would feel if they had been told at that very moment they had to get a small bag with some clothes and get out of the house with their mother for a long uncertain journey to another country – leaving their Dad and their precious playstations and other luxuries behind them. In fairness – no more than all the other kids watching a war unfold on TV for the very first time – they have been absolutely shocked by the violence and pledged they would also help with our bucket collection – organised by the Lions club for last weekend in a bid to raise some funds to aid the fleeing people of Ukraine.
Working with Red Cross
So many people throughout County Roscommon and around Ireland have already done so much to help the people in this war. Last week I saw huge efforts coming together with supplies and other key requirements in Castlerea, Strokestown, Fourmilehouse and loads of other places, but the Lions club in Roscommon took a slightly different tack and focussed their plan of action on the whole area of accommodation and how they could help when the first group of refugees actually arrive here in the county – which they inevitably will – next week or the week after.
Our club hopes to use the funds raised to help arrange accommodation for the refugees. We know it will not be easy. We are well aware that there is a shortage of rental accommodation for the local community and the international visitors who have already come here. However, we feel there are one or two larger centres not presently in use and we are going to work hand-in-hand with the Red Cross to see if we can help reopen those doors for the Ukrainian community. We have already registered one major centre with the Red Cross and they are following up to see if it is suitable. There has been a huge response from the Irish people already and almost 14,500 pledges of accommodation to Ukrainian refugees, the Irish Red Cross has said.
When the Red Cross previously sought pledges for accommodation for refugees from Syria, there were 1,000 offers – so they are taken aback by the response this time. About 20 per cent of accommodation pledges are located in Dublin, with 12 per cent in Cork, and the rest spread widely around the country.
As we speak, the refugees are currently arriving into emergency accommodation such as hotels or reception centres. Then, when the pledges have been organised, the Irish Red Cross will match them with a family. At that point hopefully some of the centres the Lions club is looking at in County Roscommon will prove suitable and we will use every bob collected in last weekend’s street bucket collection to ensure there is a roof over their head and a warm place to stay – with proper access to education, food and supplies.
*If you would like to assist the Roscommon Lions Club on this project or on any other project call Ciaran at 087 2433201 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org The club AGM takes place on Thursday week, March 24th at 8 pm in the Quad Centre, Circular Road, Roscommon and all are welcome.