Martin Hawkes and his wife Róisín Connolly are experienced hosts of refugees. In September 2017, they offered Ahmad*, who had fled his hometown of Aleppo and traveled across Syria and Turkey to the Greek islands, a vacant room at their home in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar before accepting an offer from the Irish Embassy to go to Ireland draw.
“He came to us as part of the Red Cross program for unaccompanied young men from Syria. He stayed with us for 18 months. He suffered from post-traumatic stress and depression, but like others he rebuilt his life and studied English, math and IT at Rathmines College,” explains Hawkes. Ahmad is now studying at the Institute of Technology in Carlow and lives in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow with his family who moved here in 2020.
Hawkes and Connolly, who also hosted another Syrian for a few months, share their home with a young Afghan woman, Sakina*, and will also offer accommodation to a Ukrainian. “There are only two of us, so we have a lot of space. We originally responded to the Red Cross appeal in 2016 after seeing the horrors of the war in Syria on our screens. It was an enriching experience. We learned so much about their culture.”
A Red Cross caseworker helped the Syrians register with a family doctor, receive welfare benefits and set up a bank account while living with their hosts. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy to deal with in the beginning, but once they get their bearings and get into English classes, education and employment, that’s when they get going. The Syrians are here for the long term because their country has been destroyed and Afghan women are fleeing Taliban rule, but I have a feeling that Ukrainians may want to return, although what the future holds is very uncertain.”
Hawkes believes that part of the Irish’s great reaction to the flight of Ukrainians is because it is so close to Ireland. “You look like us. They speak like us. Their values and religions are somewhat similar to ours. It makes the initial engagement easier, but underneath the skin we’re all the same.”
“It’s best not to think about it too much”
Angela Flynn, who along with her partner Paul McRedmond has previously taken in Syrian refugees and promised shelter to arriving Ukrainians, says it’s best “not to overthink it”.
“You make a difference in someone’s life. Things you might be worried about aren’t a problem,” says Flynn.
When two young Syrian men arrived at their home in Co Wicklow through the Irish Red Cross’ refugee protection scheme, Flynn was initially concerned about how they would treat their daughter, who at the time was a student nurse.
“They spent most of their time talking to people in Syria. Baara stayed for about a year and then moved to live with his brother in Cork, while Mahmoud stayed for two and a half years before moving in with friends,” explains Flynn.
During their stay, the young Syrian men cooked their own food and had their own networks. “It worked smoothly for us and in Ireland we are used to having Eastern Europeans live here so that they integrate well,” says Flynn.
“Peer support groups among host families will be important”
dr Mary Coffey, a general practitioner in Kells, County Meath, was a founding member of New Beginnings, the Kells community sponsorship group that welcomed a Syrian family to the town. Initially, she housed the son of this family. “Belal* came to me from the Emergency Reception and Orientation Center in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon in May 2018 and stayed for 15 months. He cooked for himself and had his own part of the kitchen and a shelf in the fridge. It’s important to establish ground rules so that everyone contributes and follows basic good manners, such as: B. Not playing music in the middle of the night. He mowed the grass and took out the garbage. It hasn’t changed how I lived in my own home.”
Within nine days of arriving at Coffey’s, Belal requested his family to join him and in May 2021 the New Beginnings group found a house in Kells for his parents, younger sister, older brother and himself to move into could. “We are now preparing for the arrival of mum and dad and three siblings from Belal’s mother,” she explains.
Coffey says that often when people first arrive, they feel like their lives are being put on hold. “Everything grinds to a halt while they wait for something to happen. The trauma is huge and hosts need to be prepared for it. It’s not like offering vacationers an Airbnb. They will be mothers with small children who come from Ukraine without the support of their husbands. And of course they want to come back soon. Ukrainians are deeply patriotic and many of them don’t want to be anywhere but at home.”
Coffey says that while Ukrainians are automatically drawn to each other, host families can also learn from each other while maintaining and respecting confidentiality. “I had another friend who was hosting two young men when I had Belal with me. Peer support groups among host families in the cities will be important if Ukrainians come too,” says Coffey, who is a member of Ireland Says Welcome, a Comhlamh sub-group.
“I have seldom seen such a rapid exodus”
Liam O’Dwyer, general secretary of the Irish Red Cross, said the organization had received more than 10,000 pledges of accommodation in the past 10 days. The scale of the response has required the organization, which is an official partner of the Justice Ministry, to provide housing for incoming Ukrainians, to reconsider its usual organization of refugee housing.
“We are used to dealing with 200 to 400 refugee hostels where we knew exactly how many people were arriving, but we don’t know how many people are coming to Ireland from Ukraine. I don’t expect Ukrainians to stay here after the war, but we don’t know how long it will be,” he says.
UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said more than two million people fled Ukraine in 12 days, making it the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said: “I have been working in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years and have rarely seen an exodus as rapid as this. Hour by hour, minute by minute, more and more people are fleeing the horrific reality of violence.”
In an unprecedented move, the EU has agreed to grant all Ukrainians temporary residency in the EU, activating the never-before-applied Temporary Protection Directive to bypass normal asylum procedures.
This allows Ukrainians and family members to travel to any EU country that has the right to work and access education and healthcare in the member state. Temporary stay is also offered to non-Ukrainian permanent residents who cannot safely return to their country of origin. Passports and visas have been temporarily waived and Ireland also dropped the requirement for Covid vaccination certificates for people coming here from Ukraine on March 6.
O’Dwyer says the most important thing host families can do once their offer of accommodation has been accepted by the Irish Red Cross is to be aware of the trauma the newcomer has gone through. “Some people will need to talk and some people won’t want to talk, but the most important thing is to be there to listen and give people space to recover.”
Since not everyone speaks English, interpreters from the Ukrainian community are also needed. “We are currently reaching out to the Ukrainian community in Ireland for this,” says O’Dwyer. The Irish Red Cross and other refugee organizations (Refugee Council, The Immigrant Council of Ireland and Crosscare Migrant Project in Dublin, Nasc and Together-Razem.org in Cork and Doras Luimni in Limerick) offer practical help (receiving social benefits, medical help) . tickets, school places for children, job opportunities for adults). Some also offer psychosocial counselling.
O’Dwyer says while families who take in refugees are not screened by Lake Garda – and never have been – he says the Irish Red Cross has not received any complaints from previous refugees who have accepted free offers of accommodation.
Noting the arrival of women and children from Ukraine, he adds: “In these cases, the parents who come will be the custodians of their children and they do not need to be verified by Lake Garda to admit adults.”
Other organizations – such as the Irish Refugee Council – which take offers of accommodation from the public will send these offers to the Irish Red Cross. Ukrainians arriving at airports and ports in Ireland and seeking accommodation are met by Irish Refugee Protection Scheme staff and taken to reception centers or hotels for their initial stay before longer-term accommodation is arranged.
Coffey says while host families will likely expect families to be grateful — “and they will be grateful” — it’s important to remember that “it takes a give and take and respect on both sides.”
“You are transformed by your decision to welcome people into your home. My feeling is that people are offering accommodation out of duty/obligation, but there is also a gift. There are times when it won’t be easy, but it draws on the best that we are. And when you do your best, it takes the burden off you.”
*Only first names were used to protect refugee identities
How to become a host
The Irish Red Cross manages the official website registerofpledges.redcross.ie where people can register a vacant room or property for use by Ukrainian refugees arriving in Ireland. Hosts are asked to offer accommodation for six to twelve months. Services and goods can also be pledged on the website.
There have been more than 10,000 pledges of shelter in the last 10 days, according to Liam O’Dwyer, general secretary of the Irish Red Cross. “Our task now is to get an idea of what is on offer – regardless of whether it is a complete property or a shared flat. Then we link these to mothers with their children or single people arriving from Ukraine. A large team has just been brought in to process these pledges and we will be in touch with everyone over the next few weeks to verify their details,” he says.