Comment & Analysis

Parishes prepare to welcome refugees
Delays in the arrival of refugees to Ireland, have not dampened enthusiasm to help, writes Mags Gargan

Volunteers prepare food bags for refugees arriving at a transit camp in Greece. Photo: CNS

In September Pope Francis called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take one of the thousands of families coming to the region to flee conflict and poverty.

It was a clarion call in the face of an exploding humanitarian crisis and parishioners across Ireland immediately began to mobilise to offer welcome and support. Two months later the momentum has slowed down as we to wait on news of when the refugees will arrive and where they will be based. However, parishes say the goodwill and willingness to help remains, it is just a matter of figuring out how it can be utilised.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State with responsibility for New Communities, Culture and Equality, said the delay in receiving refugees is “not Ireland’s fault”, but stems from the reluctance of the people in the refugee camps in Italy and Greece to apply for asylum in fear that through the Dublin Convention they would be forced to stay in their current host country.

After Government agencies met last week to make preparations to receive refugees in Ireland, Minister Ó Ríordáin told Newstalk “we are looking at about 20 between now and December, which is a small number, but our commitment is to take in 2,622 over the next two years” and their arrival will be handled in “a compassionate fashion and a sustainable fashion, where people can knit themselves into the local community”. 

Role for parishes

When the refugees arrive, they will be housed in ‘Reception and Orientation Centres’ across the country for about three months. Local authorities are currently working with the Irish Red Cross to map out suitable locations and the role for parishes will really come into play next year when the refugees leave the centres and are integrated into their new communities.

There are already 61 refugees in the former Hazel Hotel in Monasterevin, mostly from Syria but also a small number of Christians from Afghanistan who have been welcomed by the parish as part of the worshipping community. Fr Adrian Carbury, who was charged by Bishop Denis Nulty to co-ordinate the diocesan refugee response in Kildare & Leighlin, told The Irish Catholic he has seen “huge goodwill” in parishes. 

“Parishes have been inundated with generosity. There has been a remarkable response from the people and a deep concern to welcome,” he said.

“We are still trying to find out what the procedures are going to be, but there is great interest in parishes. Numerous parishes already have got together donations of goods for refugees, which have been dispatched through the Ireland to Calais refugee charity and other parishes have brought them to Topaz garages to be delivered to Goal, but they have both ceased operating now because they filled whatever containers or opportunities they had. We are still in contact with Human Appeal International Ireland and they collect goods for refugees from Syria.”

Fr Carbury said not having any information on the arrival of refugees is a problem “but it hasn’t deterred parishes”. “Some people have offered houses and accommodation. The information there is that the Red Cross is handling all of that across the country, whenever  it is going to be necessary. We still don’t know when the people will be in a position to go into accommodation in local communities, but the Red Cross is taking all the details for residential opportunities whether it is an apartment or a house, and you can register on their website under ‘register of pledges’.” (https://www.redcross.ie/registerofpledges/)

Following a public meeting in St Peter & Paul’s Church in Portlaoise, which attracted about 200 people, the parish decided to investigate the possibly of taking over a small number of incomplete houses in the town which volunteers will refurbish and make available for refugee resettlement.

“The problem is the decision is not in our hands,” Msgr John Byrne said. “People are anxious to do something but we are bound by the regulations and the State is in control of who comes in, where they go and their eventual relocation. It is unclear now how we can move forward.”

Minister Ó Ríordáin said the Government is “happy to engage with anyone” on accommodation. “We have to make sure accommodation is appropriate to what the refugees need. That will sometimes match with what a member of the public has offered and sometimes won’t, but certainly the offers from not just individuals or families but from community groups and religious organisations have been quite overwhelming and I think we should be proud as a country that this response has been to step up on an international basis and say refugees are welcome to Ireland.”

Across the border in Down & Connor, the Diocesan Refugee Response team appointed by Bishop Noel Treanor have advised that spare rooms with local families are not likely to be required at this stage.

“The diocese is in contact with local government to establish when refugees will begin to arrive and what additional needs they may have once they are here. It is clear that the most important thing they will need is to experience a warm and hospitable welcome from local parishes and other communities,” said Stephen McAnee, Chairperson of the Diocesan Pastoral Council.

The diocesan team have sent out a request asking parishes to pray for a resolution to the social, political and other causes giving rise to the refugee crisis; to consider holding a collection for the St Vincent de Paul (SVP) and Trócaire; to consider donating clothes, toiletries, camping equipment to the SVP or to help sort through donations and to contact them with details of any non-shared property available on a short to medium term basis for incoming refugees. 

A number of parishes across Dublin have been holding meetings to gather ideas and suggestions for how they can support the refugees when they arrive. In Beechwood Ave Parish, Fr Bernard Kennedy said the parish had a “very positive meeting” which led to a number of suggestions including fundraising, using the community centre to host welcome mornings, using sport and music to integrate refugees  into the community, offering language classes and establishing a mother and child group.

Request

At the request of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Crosscare staff in Dublin have begun working on a draft programme of support for refugees, including housing experts and interpreters, assigned specifically to helping with the intake of refugees. Crosscare Director Conor Hickey said they “hoped to work closely with State agencies as soon as Government confirmed their plans”.

A ‘Refugee Crisis Meeting’ was recently held in Clonliffe College between parish representatives, the Irish Red Cross and Crosscare. They discussed how parishes can help by registering offers and pledges with the Red Cross, setting up a parish fund for donations and identifying volunteers to help integrate professional services as soon as they are as needed.

In a pastoral letter on the refugee crisis, Archbishop Eamon Martin said the “Church has been playing its part in responding” and thanked parishes for their “great work”.

He said although the resettlement of refugees is a complex issue, “the governments in both parts of Ireland must do more to protect the human rights of refugees”. 

“We have not always handled refugees with the respect that they deserve and lessons need to be learned from the mistakes we have made in the past. There is a pressing need for prompt strategic action that weds together a cohesive plan for welcome, integration and provision of sustainable resources for the refugees. I ask you to stress this to all political figures local, national and international,” he said.