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A Positive Pandemic Refugee Story

by Sally Roddy SIJPIC LSA

Fáilte Bayside (Bayside Welcome!) is the name of our Community Sponsorship Group where I live in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, called Bayside, because of its location along the side of Dublin Bay.  This is the story of how a small group of ordinary people, with big hearts, came to make a huge difference in the lives of a Syrian refugee family; how Ashar and Fatima, (not their real names) and their darling little baby girls, came to move into our community last week, to begin a new life, after four years in a camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos, where their babies were born.   

In the early 90’s I was working in the Irish Refugee Agency, supporting the integration of Vietnamese and Bosnian programme refugees in Ireland.  A large group of Bosnians had arrived and were housed initially in a Reception Centre, while accommodation was found for them.  A group of my neighbours and I decided to start a little project in our Bayside parish to find houses for rent and to welcome some families. It was a big success and seven families with their children joined our community and were very happy here.  Friendships were forged which have lasted to this day. 

Fast forward 30 years and the world has not changed much!  People are still fleeing for their lives from war and persecution, now with climate change added to the mix.  These days they come from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, South Sudan, and Myanmar to mention but a few. Innocent lives turned upside down by wars, usually caused by powerful third countries in their own interests, with people forced to risk their lives to reach safety and beg for international protection. 

For months a small voice would not let me rest. If we could do it once why not try it again?  But I was also 30 years older and a busy woman. What’s more, unlike the 90’s there was a critical shortage of houses available to rent, not to mention a pandemic gathering momentum, with its restrictions on movements and gatherings. ‘Not a good time now’ the voice was saying but a stronger one wouldn’t leave me in peace and so one day, encouraged by the example of some friends in other areas,  I impetuously put out a call on Facebook for some allies to join me in this new Community project. 

‘No response!  Great! You can’t do this alone so forget it!’ said the voice.  Then out of the blue came a companion.  ‘I would be willing to join you and give it a go’ she said and just like that, we were seven.  Our first meeting was at the end of August 2020 in our local Community Centre, all masked up and socially distanced. A week or two later not even that was allowed, so we resorted to Zoom, the only other pandemic option, quickly becoming more and more popular.  And so ‘Fáilte Bayside’ was born. 

As a member of Ireland Says Welcome, a group of concerned activists, committed to advocacy on behalf of migrant and refugee reception and integration, and a friend in Canada, I had heard about Community Sponsorship (CS), a relatively new way to welcome refugees to Ireland. CS involved collaboration between Government, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), NGOs and Civil Society. Unlike traditional refugee resettlement models, where the state or state-supported actors provide settlement and integration services directly to refugees, Community Sponsorship invites members of the community to play a role in the delivery of those supports.

This means that Private Citizens and Community Organisations, rather than government officials, become the face of welcome for refugees arriving to our country. Under this scheme Sponsors commit to providing financial, emotional and settlement support to help newcomers as they settle into their new communities. This model of resettlement was pioneered in Canada in 1979 and has seen hugely positive outcomes since then, transforming the lives of both refugees and volunteers. 

The idea was launched in Ireland early in 1918 followed by a pilot phase from October 1918 to 1919, during which 10 CS groups helped 50 refugees to resettle in Ireland. The full programme went live in October 2019, nearly           2 years ago now, and has been growing ever since. There are an estimated 40 CS groups now scattered all over Ireland. To our surprize, we discovered CS groups we had never even heard about, in our in our neighbouring areas of Howth, Sutton, Baldoyle and Malahide, with other groups dotted around the City of Dublin and all over Ireland.

Fáilte Bayside started with a group of 7 Bayside Residents in August 2020.  So we have just had our first birthday!  The first step was to register with a Regional Support Organisation, (RSO), in our case the Irish Refugee Council, (IRC) who are responsible for supporting and guiding us through the process and providing us with in-depth training. Next we had to apply for registration under the Dept of Justice, Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), which we did successfully.

We are required by the Community Sponsorship Programme regulations to source a family home; to raise a minimum of €10,000 to help with initial costs and to provide the family with integration support for a 24 month period. This support has to be set out in a detailed Settlement Plan and we also have to do a Safeguarding Policy and undergo extensive training provided by our RSO, the IRC, which we completed a few weeks ago. 

Thanks to the generosity of the Community and our friends and family, our fundraising went very well. We set up a GoFundMe page and advertised on Social media, did a leafletting campaign in every home in our wider Community and quickly enough reached our target.  Again, like an answer to prayer, we were offered a beautiful house, made available by a very benevolent owner, who was only too happy to make it available to a Refugee Family and by the time we celebrated our first birthday as a group, we were well on our way to realizing our dream of welcoming a Syrian family to live in our beautiful friendly Community by the sea.

This has been an amazing journey so far, especially in a time of Pandemic and Lockdown. Community sponsorship creates lasting bonds between new members of the community and their neighbours. In doing so, it strengthens communities and builds awareness of broader refugee-related issues. It also has a very positive impact on the organisers and volunteers.

Our core group have forged strong bonds of friendship and worked very hard, each bringing unique gifts and talents, but it would not have been possible without the support of the wider community in Bayside, Sutton Park, Kilbarrack and surrounding areas and we are very grateful to the people, who have expressed their support in so many practical ways, only too glad to be able to do something useful to ease the pain of fellow human beings.

People often ask why we embarked on this project and there are many answers, personal to the individuals involved. However in general I suppose our motivation is one of gratitude for the wonderful welcoming community and facilities we have here in the wider Bayside area; a deep desire to share our blessings with people who, through no fault of their own, have lost everything and had to ask for international protection and a sense of outrage and helplessness in the face of the injustices in our world, often perpetrated in our name, without our consent.                                                                                                      As the saying goes ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ and we are all members of one human family. We all know too, that Irish people have been in that same boat in the not too distant past and had to rely on the support of strangers.   

However it is not all one way. We know that our community has always been enriched by the presence of neighbours from a different cultural background and ways of seeing the world.  We have had the experience of the 7 Bosnian refugee families we welcomed in the past to Bayside and their presence added so much to our community in many ways and lifelong friendships were made and still exist to this day. Nowadays, New Irish are adding so much to communities all over the country and we are the better and richer for their presence.

And so it is early days, less than a week, but our dream has come true and Ashar and Fatima, with their young family, have come to the end of a long painful and uncertain period in their lives. They are now beginning a new phase on their journey, in a strange and alien place, surrounded by people whose language they don’t understand yet, but already showing signs of feeling at home and secure, accepted with love and smiles, which they return a thousand times a day.   The people of the wider Bayside area can’t do enough for them and we pray that they will be blessed in this new land where they have been lead, and that the blessings will be on our people too, and that we will model, a new world where, in the words of Martin Luther King Jnr, ‘the lion and the lamb will lie down together and none shall be afraid’.  

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