SIX groups in Cork are undertaking a community sponsorship project, whereby they sponsor a refugee family to move to their town in Ireland.
Groups in St Luke’s, Carrigaline, and Wilton are all preparing to welcome a refugee family by fundraising and sourcing accommodation for them.
Meanwhile, Midleton, Kinsale and Carrigtwohill already have a Syrian refugee family living in their community as part of the project.
Each town and village who decides to undertake this task puts together a community sponsorship group or committee. This can be made up of neighbours, friends, colleagues, or members of a club.
They provide financial support to the new arrivals as well as social supports such as English language lessons, education, and healthcare.
About €10,000 in funding is raised before the family arrives. This is to cover their living expenses while they get back on their feet, as well as paying for urgent medical and dental care.
The group must also source private accommodation for the family for a period of 24 months.
The families who arrive in Ireland through the community sponsorship programme are already designated refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
They are usually Syrian or Syrian Kurdish refugees who were living in Jordan or Lebanon.
Because they are already refugees before they arrive in Ireland, the family does not have to apply for asylum or go through the direct provision system. They are entitled to apply for jobs and to receive State support.
The Community Sponsorship Ireland scheme was officially launched in November by David Stanton, the Minister for Equality, Immigration, and Integration, at an event in Cork’s Nano Nagle Place.
The official launch came after a successful pilot scheme involving Carrigtwohill and Midleton.
Syrian families also arrived in towns in Meath and Waterford.
Each community group who undertakes this endeavour is supported by a regional support organisation. In Cork, these are Avondhu Blackwater Partnership in Mallow, South and East Cork Area Development in Midleton, and Nasc and Cork City Partnership in the city.
This model of integration was first pioneered in Canada in the 1970s and has been successful in the following decades.
Nasc, the migrant and refugee rights centre, is one of the regional support organisations for groups undertaking community sponsorship.
Maria Bateson is Nasc’s community sponsorship project worker and her job is to help communities prepare for their new arrivals.
She says seeing communities come together has been the most rewarding part. “Seeing people work through tricky conversations in a positive way and seeing how willing they are to make a change is the best part.”
Now that the programme has been officially launched across Ireland, it is hoped more communities will come on board.
SYRIAN FAMILY MOVES TO EAST CORK
Carrigtwohill welcomed a Syrian refugee family into their community during the summer.
Ahmad Hazimeh, his wife Rawan Kateb, their daughter Iman and son Zaid arrived in May of this year. All four of them are in the midst of learning English.
While Mr Hazimeh is able to answer some of my questions in English, I also get the help of Arab-speaking Rola Abu Zeid-O’Neill, who’s originally from Palestine but lives in Carrigtwohill.
She is part of the committee who helped bring the family to the Cork village and often acts as their translator.
The family found out they were coming to Ireland last January. After they fled Syria, Mr Hazimeh spent seven years in Lebanon as a refugee, and his wife was there for five.
When asked what the locals were like when he first arrived, he answers in English: “Very lovely, and very friendly.”
“The reaction [of the locals in Carrigtwohill] was very positive, especially in comparison to the situation we had in Lebanon,” he says in Arabic.
“They were very good to us and very friendly, they treated us like family here.”
Mr Hazimeh says when he first arrived in Carrigtwohill, it was raining. However, he laughs and explains he was no stranger to bad weather.
His home village in Syria is often completely snowed under during the winter months, and he takes out his phone to show us a picture of a snowplough buried under 20 feet of snow, saying in English: “This is my village.”
“It gets very hot during the summer and colder during the winter. It was a tourist area,” he adds.
Mr Hazimeh says that his childhood was in Syria, all of his life was there until he moved to Lebanon. He misses his friends, parents and siblings who he had to leave behind.
However, he likes the Irish people, the beauty of the scenery, and how green the country is.
He also mentions that Irish people are quite sustainable. Shopping back home didn’t involve bringing your own bags, and plastic bags were given out and thrown away.
Mr Hazimeh hasn’t tried any traditional Irish foods yet but says “I like [scones],” gesturing towards the scone on his plate.
The family have also become very integrated within the community, with Mr Hazimeh describing his days as “busy” with a laugh. “[I am] learning English, [going to the] Men’s Shed, coaching the soccer club, and working on a rowboat.”
Mr Hazimeh coaches the school’s soccer team, which his son also joined. He also goes down to the Men’s Shed and has become very popular with the local men through this. This also helps him to improve his English.
The family attend weekly English lessons and doctor’s appointments, as well as many dentist appointments. The dental care of refugees is often neglected because it is not seen as vital. After this interview, his wife was going to get a filling.
Mr Hazimeh says his children love Ireland. His son is sporty and his daughter is artistic.
He adds that he wants to make sure they are involved in the community. “We are not those type of people who stay at home, we want to know and be involved in our own community.”
Ms Kateb, his wife, volunteers in the Carrigtwohill Family Resource Centre. She also learns English and partakes in other courses.
She says that Irish people are “very lovely and friendly”, and echoes her husband’s sentiments about learning Irish culture.
“It’s a new experience, especially as I am far away [from home] and there have been so many changes in my life,” Ms Kateb says.
“[The Irish] are lovely people, very friendly and lovely,” she says in English. “Helpful,” her husband adds.
She says it was important for the family to be involved with Carrigtwohill’s community. “We all live together. It’s very important to know and engage with them, and to know their traditions, behaviour and social rules.”
Ms Kateb says an Irish mannerism which she had to get used to was how people tend to hug and kiss each other as a greeting, which is not done in Syria.
She also said Irish people are very fond of giving compliments. “They would say, ‘I like your scarf, I like your coat’,” she explains. “It’s nice information.”
She says her two children are very happy in Cork. “It is very different from the schools in Lebanon they were in.”
Rola Abu Zeid-O’Neill, who translates for the family and is a member of the committee who brought them to Ireland, works in UCC. She also volunteers in Carrigtwohill’s Family Resource Centre, and her area of work is integration and inclusion. She says that the experience has been very rewarding.
“We have a community sponsorship committee. It’s diverse. We all come from different areas and have different expertise.
“We divided the work between us. The Church also supported the initiative, with Fr Bermingham the parish priest, who’s now moved to Youghal, being the chairperson.
“It made it much easier for us. He spoke in the church about Pope Francis and each community taking one family [of refugees].
“I loved every minute of this journey. I am very happy with the family, they are very involved, they are welcomed. Thank God there is no harassment of them or the children.”
Mary Carey, another member of the committee, heard about the initiative through Fr Bermingham, and through her involvement in Saint Vincent de Paul. “[Fr Bermingham] took the message of Pope Francis rather seriously and he announced that we were going to sponsor a Syrian family. He put his money into it, and then Saint Vincent de Paul in Carrigtwohill matched his money.
“That was the core funding to bring the family here.”
Fr Bermingham had a contact who knew of a house becoming available and the group managed to secure and furnish it through donations from SVP and others. “It’s close to the bus stop and shops, the school also came on board… everyone was very supportive really, the landlady too.
“The family have been so receptive of being here. They fit in and are very personable people, they’re just very pleasant. The children are very good in school.
“The Cork Education and Training Board give them English classes and we have other volunteers, like Sr Nora in the Convent and Dan Healy, a Christain Brother, who give support too.”
Teresa Ryan, another member, says they were so happy when the family finally arrived.
“We were a bit worried. It was nearly starting anew, like having a baby because we didn’t know what to do. There was a lot of work involved, especially paperwork, like translating documents… but it was all more than worth it.
“The day they arrived, we were all sitting in their house with the lights on, making it cosy, with halal meat in the fridge. We got the text they were at Dublin airport and we were so filled with anticipation.”
“The whole experience has just been gorgeous.”
Interested communities can contact their regional support organisation, or visit integration.ie/en/isec/pages/community_sponsorship_ireland