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When Syria comes to Roscommon: 'We can't run to Mass, then say 'you're not welcome''

A disused four-star hotel in the Co Roscommon town is to be turned into an integration centre for (mostly Syrian) refugees.

20170112_143529 Ballaghaderreen town square Source: TheJournal.ie

THE SMALL WESTERN town of Ballaghaderreen has been shunted front and centre in the last week, into a limelight it isn’t particularly comfortable with.

The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) announcement that an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) for refugees is to be established in the town garnered national headlines and unleashed something of a media storm in the area. There will be at least 80 people as part of the first tranche of arrivals, most of them children, most of them Syrian, with that number probably rising to 240 (though not all remaining at the same time).

The orientation process is to last for six months in Roscommon before the new arrivals are integrated elsewhere around the country.

Less than 24 hours notice was given to the town’s representatives prior to the announcement. Officially, the DOJ explained that the situation is an emergency, and word was given as soon as was reasonably practicable.

As things stand, relatively few details have emerged as to how the process is actually going to work. The first refugees are now expected towards the end of February or the start of March. Apart from this, there are few concrete details.

The reaction of the community has been heartening to independent observers. However, there remains a certain discontent with how the news was disseminated. There are also worries that the town’s infrastructure is simply not capable of supplying the services that the new arrivals will certainly need.

Unemployment

Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, has a population of just shy of 2,000. The town is really two streets (one long, one slightly shorter) intersecting with each other in a manner that will be familiar to any who have travelled through the west of Ireland.

The town, objectively, is not a well-off one. Its unemployment rate of 32.4% in 2011 (as of that year’s Census, the most recently available data) was nearly twice the then national average.

Still, jobs are certainly hard to come by in the town. Although there are at least eight pubs and numerous clothes stores, boarded-up or derelict businesses are ten-a-penny.

There are also almost 300 vacant houses sitting idle. The town has the Celtic Tiger to thank for that.

The major employers include Aurivo (an agri-food plant with about 70 employees), an ECMI cigar factory, a bacon factory and a library and offices at the Dillon House complex in the town.

Aside from that, many residents commute to nearby towns (Boyle, Castlebar, Carrick-on-Shannon) for work. Knock Airport is just 10 minutes away, but employs “a handful of people from the town at most”, according to Fr Joe Gavigan, the parish priest.

When asked about unemployment, Gavigan visibly flinches.

“There is very high unemployment here. It’s one of the major bones of contention in the community,” he says.

No guarantees

The arrival of refugees to the town should, in theory, help that figure. The new centre, to be developed in the confines of the disused four-star Abbeyfield Hotel, will require staffing – maintenance, cleaning etc.

While no guarantees have been made that employment will be sourced locally, Junior Minister for Justice David Stanton has assured stakeholders that every effort would be made to do so.

20170112_112107 Cathedral of the Assumption and St Nathy, Ballaghaderreen Source: TheJournal.ie

But employment, or resentment of newcomers, doesn’t really appear to be a problem.

Ballaghaderreen is already about as diverse a western Irish town as you could think of. There are very substantial populations of eastern European citizens and Pakistanis (many of whom worked in the Halal Meats factory which closed 10 years ago and stayed on thereafter) in the town.

What’s more, the town has already been the site of a (now defunct) Direct Provision centre. Many of that centre’s former residents (it closed nine years ago) still live locally.

The vast majority of those townspeople we spoke to are fully accepting of the challenge the town now faces and welcoming of the conflict refugees soon to arrive.

A discussion meeting held in Spells pub in the town last Monday saw at least 100 people in attendance. No politicians were allowed to speak (in their official capacity at any rate). The meeting was seen as an unqualified success, with a huge amount of people leaving their contact details at the end of the night together with information on ways they think they can assist with the volunteer effort.

The organisers of the Welcome movement are unfailingly positive about what is to come. They see it as an opportunity, not an imposition.

If there is an undercurrent of resentment, it lies in citizens feeling the town only exists for the government to use at its convenience when it comes to awkward situations.

A welcome for the refugees is a given. Love for the Department of Justice is in scant supply however.

Abbeyfield Hotel

In declaring that Ballaghaderreen would be the site of a new centre, the Department of Justice gave local representatives mere hours’ notice before the announcement hit the front pages nationally.

The Abbeyfield Hotel closed its doors in 2010, a victim of the recession, after just a handful of years in operation.

20170112_144531 The Abbeyfield Hotel Source: TheJournal.ie

Having lain derelict since (the hotel is one of the largest structures in the area, located just on the outskirts on the Dublin-side of town), it was bought by investors from Cork in 2015 which led to a period of frenzied refurbishment.

It has been argued elsewhere that the Department was entirely correct to hold off on giving the town notice of the plans; the idea being that if a long run-in was given to the establishment of the centre, it would merely give locals time to mobilise in opposition to it. Not everyone agrees with that theory however.

“It’s the lack of confidence in us that grates,” says Mary Gallagher (75), who runs a clothing store in the town along with her husband.

She says there will be a “cautious welcome” for the new residents.

“Well, what do we say to refugees looking for shelter? We can’t run to Mass and then come back and say ‘no, you’re not wanted’. That would make us great hypocrites, wouldn’t it? These are people who have come through horrific circumstances. We will do our best to make them feel at home.”

But there are also questions as to why empty houses standing idle aren’t being used. “I don’t think the hotel is the right place for them though. This town is full of empty houses, why not there?” continues Gallagher.

It’s the fact that it all boils down to money, that’s what sickens me. Someone in the background is making a bit of a buck. Well I don’t want to make a buck on the back of immigrants.
“If they had given us any collaboration and notice, I feel sure that a certain percentage of the people would think of the empty houses in the town, and make a plan and act on it. Better that than a hotel. That to me is a bit cracked.”

Excitement

For those willing to be quoted, the reaction to the news in Ballaghaderreen is remarkable for its positivity. More than one person expressed their unabashed excitement at the prospect of new arrivals.

Secretary of Ballaghaderreen GAA Club (which actually competes across the border in the Mayo county championship) Andrew Durkin (whose family run the only guest house in the town since the demise of the Abbeyfield as a going concern) tells us he can see nothing but positives.

The club has already agreed at a general meeting to send envoys to the new centre to “take a few, well not coaching sessions, but create a few fun occasions with the kids”.

Has he seen any resentment? “No, none whatsoever, we’re a pretty open people. To be honest, if the information is out there for people, and they’re not being kept in the dark, then they tend to be a lot more accepting.”

20170112_133057 Sajjad Hussain Source: TheJournal.ie

Sajjad (Saj for short) Hussain, meanwhile, runs one of the town’s barber shops.

A Pakistani national, he’s been living in Ireland for 15 years, and in Ballaghaderreen for 10, where he’s married with two children. He is manager of the town’s cricket team, and someone who smiles and laughs easily. He was also one of many contributors at last Monday’s meeting, a speech that apparently had people ‘in tears’ when he suggested that the only thing the Syrian newcomers will need when they arrive ‘is love’.

“They should tell us clearly what the facilities are going to be, the government. But the refugees? No, I don’t think anyone has any problem with them at all,” he tells us.

Some people don’t like to put their name out maybe, but I think people might just be worried because of a lack of information. I mean, all these people will be garda-checked before they get here. There is nothing to worry about.

Saj describes the Abbeyfield as “a beautiful, fabulous hotel”.

“Maybe it is too good for Ballaghaderreen?” he smiles. He thinks the town is ready for its new challenge.

If the government give more information, and helps out with employing people, then I think the people here are good-hearted, they are very good and welcoming. It will be fine.

Official lines

The official integration will be handled by the local Community Development Programme (CDP). The Welcome to Roscommon movement meanwhile has been set up so that locals can volunteer their time and expertise.

Debbie Beirne, one of the organisers of last Monday’s meeting and one of the chief personalities behind the Welcome movement, says she is “100% certain” the community’s reaction to the new arrivals will be a welcoming one.

“It’s only when these people get here that everything will fall into place. Could this help the community? Oh it absolutely could. Since my earliest memory we’ve had a multinational community here, this is nothing new to us,” she says.

She can understand the DOJ’s policy of little-or-no information as regards the centre:

“I’d actually like to think their was wisdom behind their decision. They may have seen it as avoiding whipping up a storm. But that decision may not have been made out of wisdom.”

We put it to her that not all the reaction we have seen from the town’s citizens has been as universally positive as her own. What does she think?

“They’re entitled to their opinion. I don’t see them as reflective of the community. Have these people travelled the world? Have they seen other nationalities and religions? Have they experienced how other people live?

To be honest, if there are such sentiments I haven’t heard them, I’ve heard the exact opposite. But then I would be the wrong person to be saying those things to.

Negativity

The negative reactions we mention have one thing in common – speaking to townspeople, those in question initially do not want to speak, certainly don’t want to be quoted and are distrustful of the media in general (of whom they have had their fill in the last seven days). Gradually, however, they come out of their shell.

20170112_143635 Source: TheJournal.ie

“How could I say anything bad about them, these are people, they’ve come through dreadful things,” says one woman. “But we’re just a small town, what do we have to offer them? I can’t imagine they are overly excited to be coming to Ballaghaderreen either. Or is it someone just making money?”

“I have no problem with them coming here, we’ll do our best for them,” says another. “My concern would be that we don’t have anything like the services here in place to deal with this.”

One other point of view expressed was that “Ballaghaderreen has done enough”, is “losing its Irishness”, and that “most people in the town are afraid to say what they think”. Whether this be truthful or no, it’s an opinion that was only expressed to us in one place.

Only one truly negative situation has presented itself in the town since the announcement was made eight days ago. In the immediate aftermath, a graphic, anti-Islamic flyer was distributed through letterboxes. The incident appears to be an isolated one however, and gardaí are taking it seriously.

Positivity

“Look, I’m a realist,” says Michael Frain, a community leader (and fire officer) who runs a local print shop, of possible negative reactions within the town.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if Ballaghaderreen is representative of the country as a whole, you would be worried if there weren’t conflicting opinions.

“People are looking at the TV and they’re seeing Aleppo and bombing and they think that’s going to be it. Add that to the vacuum that happened when this thing was announced, you can understand a view that there would be issues around all this.”

20170112_152634 Source: TheJournal.ie

But I can hopefully say in six months time, the sky won’t have fallen in. I can’t see anything to be worried about with this situation to be honest.

Frain, someone who oozes positivity, allows that the loss of the Abbeyfield is a disappointment. He also acknowledges that the selection of Ballaghaderreen by the DOJ, and the “mechanism by which that decision was relayed”, has to be questioned. However:

“I’m in community development all my life, we try to bring employment to the town, we tried to get that hotel going. Of course we’re disappointed.

But who’s to say that hotel won’t open again? This isn’t forever.

The suggestion of negative reactions is one that clearly irks him, something he feels the media has had more than a little hand in cultivating.

“What really annoys me is people come to town and put microphones under people’s noses, and maybe those people aren’t working themselves, they have strong opinions, and they’re being taken as Gospel. But then you have people who have nothing in this town and they’re welcoming these people with open arms. Others have worked with organisations around the world and have retired and have come back to help and support the town.”

Has Ballaghaderreen, in an opinion expressed elsewhere, ‘done enough’?

20170112_125623 Ballaghaderreen GAA Club Source: TheJournal.ie

Done enough? What does that really mean? The opportunity here is to be a shining example of what a town in the west of Ireland can do, and in years to come people will say ‘that’s a place that has done something for humanity’, I want to base my business there.

“When we had the Direct Provision centre here, we used to have a clean-up-the-streets effort for Tidy Towns every Saturday, and there may not have been townspeople involved, but they came out when they saw the residents of the centre out helping. They said they were ashamed to have people from another country cleaning up their rubbish. Every Saturday. We’ve learned a lot in the last number of years.”

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