The small town of Ballaghaderreen recently found out that it would be welcoming some 82 refugees in the near future. About half of these are minors and most of those are under 12 including 13 under the age of 4. There were the predictable attempts by neo-nazis to whip up hate online and someone even distributed about 80 British fascist leaflets in the town. But rather than hate taking hold the town held a standing room only welcoming meeting last Thursday. We asked one of the organisers, Jessamine O Connor, to tell us how this happened.
Solidarity Times: How did you hear the refugees would be coming to Ballaghaderreen?
Jessamine: News broke in Ballaghaderreen on Friday morning, through the national press, that the town would be receiving about 80 refugees at some unspecified date in the next few weeks. This was a shock, as it had apparently not been discussed with the local schools, doctors, or other service providers. The initial response was negative; many people were fearful, confused, and of course some were angry or simply racist. The atmosphere looked like it could go either way, and the radio seemed to be ramping it up with very aggressive coverage.
Solidarity Times: You decided to do something about that, how did you organise the meeting?
Jessamine: It was a simple thing to ring around, get a few people on side and book a venue. We called a meeting for the Monday night, for those who wanted to welcome the refugees and help them when they got here. We stated at the outset that this meeting would only be to come up with ideas for how best to help the people when they arrived, and not to discuss the government’s strategy of placing refugees in a small town –population about 1800- which was recently named the most disadvantaged town in Connaught. We made it clear that we would not entertain any negative comments about refugees, or be hosting politicians on a soapbox.
Solidarity Times: Did you get a good response from people living in the town?
Jessamine: Interest in the meeting soared, thanks largely to the internet, and by the Monday we had already spoken to nearly every local and national radio station about our intention to warmly welcome Syrian people to town.
We held the event, under the title “Ballaghaderreen Welcomes Refugees” (to be clear!) in Spell’s Rum+Black Music Club, and ten minutes in it was packed beyond capacity. I briefly restated our purpose, and reminded the media that there would be no drama or debate; that we were solely solution focused, and then Debbie Beirne facilitated. We had Jenny and Derek Graham (from No More Borders No More Tears) speaking about their experience of the refugee camps in Greece, and really positive contributions from members of the community, all offering to help in whatever way they could.
Solidarity Times: Whats going to happen next?
Jessamine: We passed around sheets for people to leave their contact details, and skills they might be able to volunteer at a later date. We were overwhelmed by the support, and counted over 100 names just there alone. We have been inundated with offers from further afield of practical assistance at different stages, and pledges of items and services if they are needed.
We are compiling a mini-directory for the new arrivals, of local businesses and individuals who can offer free services, and will be setting up a “Failte Isteach” conversational English class in the town before they arrive. This class will be for all residents of the area who want to improve their English, so will benefit members of our large Pakistani community and others, as well as the native volunteers.
Solidarity Times: What about people who want to find out more or even get involved?
Jessamine: We are a grassroots community group, with no political or religious affiliation, going under the name “Welcome To Roscommon” for now, and you can find us on facebook, or email firstname.lastname@example.org