Cork woman recalls her work supporting Ukranian refugees fleeing war

Cork woman Rosarii Griffin tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about her time in a Polish city volunteering at an information booth for refugees fleeing war
Cork woman recalls her work supporting Ukranian refugees fleeing war

Rosarii Griffin, far left, who recently volunteered on the Polish border helping Ukrainians.

WHEN a walk along the Camino de Santiago was postponed due to her travelling companion’s illness, Rosarii Griffin had a week off work and got in touch with two friends who are volunteering in Ukraine.

She wanted to do something to help and ended up working at an information booth for refugees interested in coming to Ireland. Rosarii’s sister, Olivia, volunteered alongside her.

Rosarii, interim director at the Centre for Global Development at UCC, found herself with her sister in the small south-eastern Polish city of Przemysl recently, fewer than ten miles from the Polish/Ukrainian border.

In the past, Rosarii had worked in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I would have witnessed poverty, but not a war situation,” she says.

By the time she arrived in Przemysl in a space she describes as being like a hollowed out Wilton Shopping Centre, with information stalls for various different countries, security had tightened up.

Rosarii Griffin and her fellow volunteers.
Rosarii Griffin and her fellow volunteers.

“It was well organised. But in the first few weeks, I’d say things were not organised. 

"Traffickers would take photographs of families on one side of the border, they’d pass the photos on to their contacts on the other side of the border and then target the families, offering them a lift to the train station or whatever. 

"Some of these people disappeared so things had to tighten up when this became known.

“For any refugees crossing the border, NGOs give out food and water to them. They are then bussed to the refugee centre. By the time I got there, it was quite tightly controlled. I had to register as a volunteer. A copy of my passport was taken and I had to wear a wrist band for going in and out of the centre. There were some kind of Polish guards policing it. While I was in the disused shopping centre, the guards made it a one-way system so that you could be more easily tracked.”

For Rosarii, one of the most poignant sights she witnessed was that of elderly Ukrainians dragging their possessions around in shopping bags. Some of them had never been out of their country before and didn’t even own suitcases. From money donated, the volunteers bought wheelie cases for these people.

“They looked worn out. But one couple I met, who were 50 years married, were like a young couple who were full of the joys. They were laughing and joking. A light-hearted moment like that was lovely.”

Some refugees arrived at the information centre with their pets. But only a couple of airlines take pets and the cost is around €600.

“We were using fund-raised money to pay for flights for families. Obviously, we couldn’t pay for pets but we told the pet owners that they could travel by land. Buses and trains and the ferry were all free once the refugees had Ukrainian papers and passports. We would map out the route for them, directing them to Cherbourg via Paris. In Dublin, they would be met by the Irish Red Cross and officials.”

University College Cork students and staff gathered on the Quad to show solidarity for the people of Ukraine. Pictured: Gary Hurley, Dr. Rosarii Griffin, Dr. James Kapolo and Dr. Andrew Cotty. Photo By Tomas Tyner, UCC.
University College Cork students and staff gathered on the Quad to show solidarity for the people of Ukraine. Pictured: Gary Hurley, Dr. Rosarii Griffin, Dr. James Kapolo and Dr. Andrew Cotty. Photo By Tomas Tyner, UCC.

Rosarii says most of the younger people she met all wanted to return to Ukraine as quickly as possible.

“Their next big concern was whether they would be able to work in Ireland. 

"I rarely got any questions about social supports. There was a childminding situation for young mothers. I told them that maybe a bunch of Ukrainians could come together and work something out.”

There was some worrying misinformation about Ireland doing the rounds, with people saying that they wouldn’t be able to return to Ukraine and that Ireland would be like an open prison.

“ I suspect they may have read accounts of the direct provision system and thought refugees would be locked into the system, unable to work and given so much a week until their cases were processed a few years later. Obviously, that would be a nightmare for any Ukrainian.”

Some might argue that in this country, we can’t house our own, not to mind taking in thousands of refugees from Ukraine.

“Obviously, it’s a legitimate concern because there are people here in the direct provision system for a long time. They haven’t had the red carpet shown to them. And there are other people who are homeless since the economic crash. People are in difficult situations.

“It looks like one rule for some people and another rule for others. But I think most Irish people understand that this is a crisis situation, a war situation. 

"I think we feel very much for the Ukrainians because of the fact that their country’s sovereignty has been invaded. Maybe that’s because it’s only 100 years since we gained our own independence. 

"We have a real sense of the injustice bestowed upon the Ukrainian people. Plus of course they are on Europe’s borders.

“I think we have a duty of care towards the Ukrainians. But to be fair, most of them are going to Germany and Poland. Those countries have taken in more than their fair share of refugees. But that’s understandable. 

"All refugees are internally displaced people who want to stay close to home so they can go back there as quickly as possible.”

Rosarii couldn’t figure out why some Ukrainians wanted to come to Ireland.

“They didn’t have the language. They had no connections here. Picking Ireland just seemed like a good idea.

“Obviously, we had to manage their expectations, making sure they knew what they were getting into.”

Ireland is a more attractive destination than the UK, says Rosarii.

“There were UK colleagues working right next to us at the information centre. They were very frustrated with their own government because there was a minimum of three weeks to get a visa to travel to England.

“In the centre, people just had 48 hours to decide where they wanted to go. 

"If they expressed interest in Ireland, they read up on it (in translation if necessary) and if they wanted to come here, they’d come back to us the next day and we’d book them on flights or give them a pathway on land.

“Some lorry drivers going back to Ireland were good enough to bring pets with them. All the pets were well documented.”

Rosarii kept in touch with some refugees in Ireland, including a single man called Yuri. He had been brought to Littleton in Co. Tipperary. After a few days, he was sent to Clonakilty Agricultural College.

“Yuri and a busload of Ukrainians were brought to the college. He was given his own room whereas everything had been communal before that. The community in Clonakilty have been fantastic. Yuri was blown away by the hospitality of the people.”

Rosarii, conscious that the refugees staying in the agricultural college were in a rural location, put out a call in UCC for bicycles.

“I got loads of offers of bikes. Some people got their old bikes repaired. A guy who works in UCC, Joe Leavey, kindly volunteered to deposit the bikes in Clonakilty.”

A Ukrainian woman and her daughter ended up in Westport.

“She texted me to say that the people and the countryside are beautiful. They were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.”

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