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Voices

Lynn Ruane: An inspirational school project reminds us of our shared humanity

I find it obscene that Ireland is dragging its feet rather than creating an environment where families torn apart by war can start a new life, writes Senator Lynn Ruane.

Image: Derek Speirs

“NO-ONE LEAVES home unless home chases you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly

“You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” 

Those are the words of Warsan Shire, an emotive poem that was quoted in the AV room in Leinster House recently when members of the Oireachtas heard a presentation by transition year students from Largy College in Clones, Monaghan.

The students explained their transition year project on the promotion of human rights for refugees and asylum seekers, with a particular focus on the new communities of Clones. The project is called We Are All Human.

It is a testament to the young people’s outward looking, compassionate approach to the refugee crisis. It is an effort to create a safe and inclusive space in their community for their new Syrian neighbours.

The project expanded on the idea that people who become refugees or seek asylum in other countries do so not by choice, but because they are forced to. Most of them would like to return to their country of origin when the danger subsides.

The students reminded us that 68 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution, natural disaster, violence and war. 

By the end of December 2018, Irish reception centres were home to more than 6,000 people, some of whom have refugee status but are unable to leave the centres due to housing shortages.

Warsan Shires powerful poem was followed by the words of Lilav Mohamed, a young Syrian student, who started in Largy College last September and taught herself English using YouTube.

Despite having endured so much adversity Lilav still manages to smile most days. The room fell silent as she shared her story.

Herself and her family fled their homes outside Aleppo eight years ago because of the war. Initially, the whole family went to Turkey but when Lilav and her parents left – her sister Jihan and her husband stayed in Turkey.

Then due to the death of Jihan’s brother-in-law, the couple returned to Syria. They intended to return only briefly, but because of the violence, they found themselves trapped in Syria, with their two little daughters, aged one and a half and five months old.  

Syria is not a safe place for Lilav’s beautiful nieces to grow up and life is extremely difficult for the young family. There is limited access to basic necessities  They don’t have nappies, instead, they have one overall each which they wear constantly.  

Although the overalls are washed regularly they are still dirty and this leaves both children vulnerable to disease.  

Medication and proper food are very expensive and hard to find.  There have been times when Lilav’s nieces have gone for days without baby formula. Jihan and her family would like to leave Syria and move to Ireland to join Lilav and the rest of the family.

However, they are not able to travel to Ireland as they don’t have their original identification papers. Jihan and her family need to travel from their village to Aleppo in order to get these papers. Before the war, Aleppo was a one-hour car journey from their village but now it is a dangerous two-day journey.

There is no guarantee that Jihan or her family will survive. It is very expensive for people in this situation to flee the war. Lilav says that it would cost €7,000 per person to flee by boat, €10,000 to escape on foot – while getting out by plane costs €15,000 per person.

Lilav’s is just one of many stories she knows that she is not alone in her plight.

Lilav is one of the people whose story inspired the We Are All Human project.

Supported by Brenda Clerkin from Monaghan County Council the students sourced funding to expand the initiative. They reached out to local households and businesses in Clones by distributing welcome mats and those who accepted a mat did so on the condition that they pledged their support for people fleeing danger and persecution.  

The students designed and printed a children’s book called The Gingerbread Man’s Flight to Freedom. This book was illustrated by Ciara Moley.

They also designed a board game called, Lilav’s Journey. The game and the book will be distributed to primary schools across Co Monaghan, assisting children as young as five to understand a little about those who have fled to Ireland for safety.

The students didn’t stop at books, board games and welcome mats either – they also developed an app called Monaghan Welcomes You which is free to download from Google Play.  

This app was designed to provide information about essential services in county Monaghan.  It includes telephone numbers and addresses of doctors, schools, pharmacies, churches, Garda stations and other essential public and community services.  The user can choose from seven different languages, English, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Romanian, Turkish and Arabic.

Throughout the year, the students have taken every opportunity to convey their message. They participated in the Clones St Patrick’s Day parade and media interviews.

They designed and hosted a community event in Clones – a challenge in which participants experience the issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers.

They are now working on the story for a film about Lilav. 

On 20 May these remarkable young students picked up two awards at the Young Social Innovators of the Year Awards 2019. They won the Global Citizens Award 2019 and the Overall Silver Award.

But awards are one thing – at the same time, Lilav’s sister, brother in law and nieces are not being facilitated to join their family in Ireland.

I find it obscene that Ireland is dragging its feet rather than creating an environment where families torn apart by war can start a new life.

They would much prefer to be able to live and flourish in their own homes, in their own countries, but until this is possible we must make our home their home.

Our Government could change that situation easily by passing Senator Colette Kelleher’s Family Reunification bill, which is supported by a substantial majority in both houses of the Oireachtas.

That change could make a huge difference to the lives of refugees living in Ireland. 

It would also demonstrate to all of our young citizens that the Irish people stand in solidarity with those who are forced to flee the horrors of war.

The time is now – we are all human. 

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