The map of the island was multi-coloured with post-its.  Welcome to the annual networking gathering of Places of Sanctuary (Ireland).  Enthusiasts from Belfast to Cork, from Galway to Dublin, and places in between, came together to discuss progress around four ambitions:-

  • Awareness-raising: to help educate and inform communities about refugees and migrants. Who are they? Why do they come to Ireland? What are their stories?
  • Befriending: to help Irish people (north and South) to get to know and welcome newcomers.
  • Cultural connections: to ensure that every activity and group can be a place of sanctuary and welcome.

As simple as A, B, C – adapting the U.K. concept of Cities of Sanctuary to Ireland, where places can encompass rural communities and small towns, as well as urban centres.

 

The local group representatives that swopped stories and ideas in the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, came from Belfast, Cork, Waterford, Portlaoise, Galway, Limerick, Athlone, Monaghan, Dundalk, Cavan and Dublin.  Coleraine and Derry sent apologies.  They spoke about schools of sanctuary and universities of sanctuary; cities of sanctuary and counties of sanctuary.  They celebrated each other’s achievements and simmered over the ‘deeply ungenerous’ measures that the Irish Department of Justice has seen fit to present in response to a recent Irish Supreme Court judgement that asylum seekers should have the right to work.   But they are unfailing optimists – ‘Sure the Minister is a decent man, and the proposed measure is temporary!’  Organising activist, Tiffy Allen, assured local group representatives that the ‘Culture of welcome runs through Ireland’.

Refugee Voices

Speaking as a member of the Portlaoise Places of Sanctuary group, Rosie – a refugee herself – described how her confidence was built through participation on an introduction to politics course which explained how things work in Ireland.  The course was developed initially in Waterford and was then rolled out in other areas.  Rosie said, “I am able to give of my skills”.  A sister, originally from Nigeria, explained how she and her family were ‘at the wrong end of the stick’, experiencing the asylum process as long-drawn out and nerve shattering.  Having fled her country, with her husband and three children, after the family were threatened, she described how the asylum process in Ireland leached away any sense of self-confidence.  Official letters were seen as threatening, and no matter what the treatment meted out, she was always frightened to complain.  Like many other asylum-seekers, she explained, you eventually reach breaking point and ‘damn the consequences’.  Places of Sanctuary invited her to join a delegation of refugees to address Senators and Deputies in the Dáil.  “Just giving me the opportunity to talk is like pulling your head out of the ocean when you are drowning”, she said, commending the Senators and T.D.s who took the time to meet them and listen to their stories.

The Places of Sanctuary networking event drew representation from asylum seekers still living in Direct Provision across Ireland, as well as Irish, British and motivated people of all ages and backgrounds from across the island, irrespective of borders.

Pushing the Bounds of Possibility

The Cork Places of Sanctuary group spoke of the close links with both Cork City Council Social Inclusion Unit and University College Cork.  They welcomed the Scholarship Scheme established for refugees established by the University.  Limerick also reported university interest in recognition that this city has the highest Muslim population outside Dublin.  Representatives from University College Galway formed part of the Galway delegation, reporting on linkages with Galway One World Centre, Galway Anti-Racism Network and the EU funded Bridge Project in Galway that is actively working towards making Galway a City of Sanctuary.  It was noted that 25% of this city on the western seaboard are now foreign nationals, ensuring diversity in the Galway Culture Capital of Europe programme slated for 2020.

In the Midlands, Athlone Institute of Technology College is already a college of sanctuary.  It is currently developing on-line programmes to facilitate refugee access to skills development and learning.  Two participants from Dundalk Institute of Technology expressed interest in following this path.  Focusing on children, work in both Monaghan and Derry/Londonderry highlighted the possibility of fostering Schools of Sanctuary and the Northern Ireland Educational Authority have developed a Schools of Sanctuary Resource Pack.

The location of Direct Provision centres in areas such as Athlone, Portlaoise and Limerick has heightened awareness of the importance of extending a welcome.  The New Horizon Refugee Support Group was established in Athlone in 2000, where Direct Provision currently houses some 400 people.  The Laois Integration Network extends a welcome through sport, the arts and social activities.  It has struck a resounding chord by supporting an Orchestra of Sanctuary as well as a local Football Team.  Reference was made to a forthcoming GAA (Gaelic Athletics Association) Refugee event due to be held in Croke Park in March 2018.  Meanwhile, a touring exhibition in Limerick focused on Children in War Torn Syria, while the Dublin group received support from the Abbey Theatre.  Striking a more pragmatic note, the Limerick group has formed a partnership with the Samaritans to offer an empathetic ‘listening ear’ for refugees and asylum seekers who are as often distressed by the trauma of their previous life as by the uncertainty of their current status.

The Dublin Places of Sanctuary group outlined their busy schedule, which ranged from a Soccer Tournament in January to a Right to Work conference in the autumn.  Contact with Christ Church Cathedral is giving rise to a Cathedral of Sanctuary, and in May, 50 people lobbied the Dáil and Seanad.  Listening to the achievements of other groups, the Belfast representatives announced that its Strategic Plan is due to be launched in Belfast City Hall in March.

Weaving the Strands Together

Places of Sanctuary is seen as a people’s movement.  Activist, Tiffy Allen argued that “The culture itself is beginning to shift. . .It is beginning to be the cool thing to do”.  The sanctuary movement is keen to emphasize that the idea of sanctuary can be woven into daily life; enhancing what people are already doing.  The important twist in the weave is the awareness and confidence to ensure that people who come to Ireland as refugees and asylum seekers are welcomed and included.  In the words of the Places of Sanctuary movement – ‘We work together with schools and colleges, universities, faith groups, local councils, community groups, businesses, sports and other organisations to create opportunities for local people to meet newcomers to our country, to hear their stories and to help them find a new home here amongst us.  We want to ensure that their voices are heard and their skills and talents are given opportunity to flourish for their good and that of Irish society as a whole’.   The Social Change Initiative was delighted to be associated with the Places of Sanctuary networking day through its Migration Learning Exchange programme.   For further information contact info@ireland.cityofsanctuary.org and www.cityofsanctuary.org.

Dr Avila Kilmurray

29th January 2018