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'Germany is taking in 800,000 refugees, were Ireland proportionally as welcoming, we would take in 40,000'

Donal O’Keeffe writes about ‘The week since Aylan Kurdi’s death woke the world and shamed us all’.

DURING AN GORTA Mór, when a million of us died and a million more fled to the sea on the coffin ships, strangers half a world away – strangers who had nothing themselves – rallied to our aid.

In the depths of Black ’47, the worst year of our Great Famine, the Choctaw Nation gathered in Scullyville, Oklahoma and decided that they had to help the starving Irish. They raised the equivalent in today’s money of about a million dollars.

These were people who had just endured incredible hardship and who were living in dire poverty themselves. Less than two decades earlier, the Choctaws had become – under Irish-American President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act – the first Native Americans to be forcibly removed from their lands. Through the worst winter on record and through a cholera epidemic, some 17,000 Choctaws – men, women and children – were forced to walk the 500 mile Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. As many as 6,000 died en route.

To quote, “Only sixteen years had passed since the Choctaws themselves had faced hunger and death on the first Trail of Tears, and a great empathy was felt when they heard such a similar story coming from across the ocean… These noble Choctaw people, who had such meagre resources, gave all they could (to help) others in greater need.”

Greece Migrants A Syrian boy, his parents phone number written on his arm, sleeps at the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

’600 people pitiful figure’ 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kindness of the Choctaw Nation this past week. I was very upset – as were you, I imagine – at the sight of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s little body lying dead on a Turkish beach. I have small people I love in my life and I can’t stop thinking that, but for the grace of God or fate or chance, they might well have faced Aylan’s fate.

Aylan drowned with his five-year-old brother Galip and his mother Rehan. His father, Abdullah, survived. They had been fleeing their Syrian hometown of Kobani, which has been besieged by ISIS. The day after he lost his family, a distraught Abdullah returned home, saying that all he wanted to do now was to bury his family and find peace. I cannot imagine –and neither, I suspect, can you – the pain that poor man must feel and the hell he must be in to think that walking back into a warzone will bring him peace.

Turkey Migrants AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The image of Aylan flashed across the world and it made us all catch our breath. European leaders – most of whom until now had seemed to be hoping the refugee crisis on their doorstep would just go away – struggled to respond. Our Taoiseach asked how anyone could not be moved by the sight of Aylan “washed up like driftwood” but did his best to avoid committing to take in any more refugees than the Irish Government’s initial, pitiful figure of 600 people over two years.

“We should look after our own first”

I believe Ireland is not doing nearly enough to help in what the journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes has called “our 1939 moment”. Yes, of course we can all be justifiably very proud of the Irish Navy’s great humanitarian work in the Mediterranean. Thus far, they have rescued more than 6,000 people. Surely we have no finer ambassadors.

Italy Migrants A crew member of the Irish Navy vessel LE Niamh holds a baby, who was rescued together other migrants, as they disembark at the Messina harbor in Sicily AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Likewise, Irish Aid points out that, since 2012, Ireland has contributed more than €100 million in humanitarian aid for those affected by war and violence in the Middle East and on the Horn of Africa.

Accepting that, I doubt that anyone with a functioning heart or brain would disagree that Ireland has to do a lot more. Of course – because RTÉ is obsessed with “balance” – the Identity Ireland lads have already been rolled out, blinking into the sunlight. Compassion being something that needs to be balanced out, apparently.

Despite the usual cries of “We should look after our own first!” from those often the first to step over “our own”, the outpouring of support from Irish people over the past week shows we are better than that. Just 24 hours after it launched its Pledge A Bed campaign, reported that it had received over 6,000 offers to take in refugees.

Politicians are survivors

In the week since Aylan Kurdi’s death woke the world and shamed us all, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has said Ireland may now take 1,800 refugees. The Taoiseach then suggested that the figure will be higher.

On Sunday, the Tánaiste, Joan Burton, went so far as to say there should be no upper limit on the number of people we should take in. Politicians are survivors. They don’t last long if they can’t tell which way the wind is blowing. I think the Irish people are – as usual – miles ahead of their leaders.

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Germany is taking in at least 800,000 refugees right now. Were Ireland proportionally as welcoming, we would take in 40,000. Yes, Germany has demographic reasons for their generosity and, yes, they are the EU’s richest country. The ghosts of the Holocaust are clearly not far from their thoughts either but just look at the joyous faces of German citizens as they welcome refugees.

That’s how it feels to be the good guys. That’s how it feels to do the right thing.

“We have to decide at certain times in our life to do what is right”

Last Friday, President Higgins – not for the first time – spoke from the heart and gave us that rarest thing in Irish life – leadership. Speaking to RTÉ, he said “(T)hese are people who are fleeing from persecution. These are people whose children are being lost at sea.

These are people who are being smuggled, people seeking to escape from slavery.

“We have to decide at certain times in our life to do what is right and what is right is to come to the assistance of those who like our own ancestors were being lost at sea.”

If you’re upset at Aylan’s death, if you think Ireland should give shelter to more than just 600 refugees, then please tell your TDs.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Famine, war, poverty and exodus are as old as time. At our worst, humanity is a brutish, selfish species. The only redemption we have is compassion.

In Ireland’s darkest hour, kindness came to us from strangers. We should remember the example of our Choctaw brothers and sisters and, as President Higgins said, we have to decide to do what is right.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here

Read: Have we forgotten a time of ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’?>

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