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Eight months on, what do locals think of Roscommon's 'Refugee Hotel'?

A new TV3 documentary hears from locals determined to give the refugees a warm welcome and others who are fearful.

IN MARCH OF this year, the first of 240 Syrian refugees arrived in Ballaghaderreen, a small, remote town in Co Roscommon.

The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) announcement that an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) for refugees was to be established in the town garnered national headlines and unleashed something of a media storm in the area.

There was criticism of the announcement when it was made at the start of the year – with local representatives complaining they weren’t given enough notice of the new arrivals to the town.

Arrangements to welcome the refugees were quickly made however – at a town meeting in January more than 100 people left contact numbers and details of how they thought they could help the volunteer effort.

A group of locals called the ‘Welcome to Roscommon’ movement also came together to build a ‘wall of welcome’ at the Abbeyfield Hotel where the refugees are now staying.

There was a less positive reaction from some with graphic, anti-Islamic flyers distributed in the town.

The refugees will eventually be integrated in different communities throughout the country after their asylum claims are processed. A TV3 documentary to be broadcast tonight looks at how they’re settling into the community since their arrival.

Capture Ghassan and his family in Ballaghaderreen Source: Ireland's Refugee Hotel via TV3

Local views 

Ireland’s Refugee Hotel: True Lives, which was co-produced with the BBC, hears from locals determined to give the refugees a warm welcome and others who are concerned and fearful.

Ann and her husband Martin have lived in Ballaghaderreen for most of their lives. Ann told the documentary-makers she initially had concerns about the impact on the town.

She’s filmed telling the documentary-makers:

“While I agree with them coming to the town, I don’t agree with them all in the one area, if they were spread out in different towns – that’s my idea of it.

If you cannot talk to them, you get afraid of them. If you cannot say ‘hello’ to them, you get afraid of them.

“You don’t know what they’re like and I’m afraid to walk out on the street now because they go in bunches, 10 at a time, maybe 11 at a time up the street – big lads like, you know.”

She said:

They have done nothing to me, and I hope they won’t but I’m afraid of them. I will not go walking like I used to do.

In footage filmed later in the documentary process, however, she told the team she had had a change of heart.

“What made me change my mind was when they spoke to me, when they said ‘hello’. I wasn’t afraid then.

“When they look at you in the two eyes and say ‘hello’ in their own language, or whatever, and they just keep going, you know, that’s what made me change my mind.”

Ann and Martin Ballaghaderreen local Ann and her husband Martin Source: TV3

In another scene from the documentary, Mary, who runs a local clothes shop, said she believed the Irish history of emigration should encourage locals to welcome the refugees with open arms.

Ghassan, aged 21, fled Syria leaving his parents behind. He’s now staying in the Abbeyfield Hotel with his grandmother, aunt and nieces.

The documentary shows Ghassan visiting Mary’s shop with crochet from his grandaunt, which Mary describes as beautiful.

Mary Shop owner Mary Source: Ireland's Refugee Hotel via TV3

Speaking about the similarities between Syria and Ireland, Mary says:

“When I heard all about this upheaval and everything else, it’s terrible because down here in this part of the country, we had experiences similar to that many generation ago.

We had famine and we had people on coffin ships so we can share that sense of loss, that sense of separation, the sense of strangeness, all that kind of thing and if we don’t, well then we’re just – I don’t know what.
If something doesn’t touch our hearts when all that happens in Syria, we are not human.

Ghassan seems touched by her words, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.”

Earlier this year a group of Roscommon teenagers won a prestigious Foróige youth citizenship prize for their efforts at helping Syrian youths to integrate into their hometown.

The local teenagers designed a welcome poster and folder for the arriving youths in the refugee group, with individual messages translated into Arabic. They also arranged a series of social evenings for the newcomers.

Ireland’s Refugee Hotel: True Lives is a co-production between TV3 and BBC1, made by independent production company Films of Record. It airs on TV3 at 9pm tonight.

Read: Roscommon town prepares for refugees by building a wall… of welcome>

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