Reflections on the Refugee Crisis

srSr. Lena Deevy, a member of the Little Sisters of the Assumption is a former Executive Director of the Irish International Immigrant Centre in Boston. She was among the recipients of the first annual Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad. Sr. Lena has been active in many international peace and justice initiatives and campaigns. Originally from Co Laois but now  living near Carrickmacross, she continues her peace and justice work and is focusing in particular on the current refugee crisis. This week we invited Sr. Lena to reflect  on our role in responding to the crisis. She writes…

Daily we are reminded of the numbers of men, women & children fleeing the war in Syria.  We struggle to come up with an appropriate response we can manage.   We applaud the great work of the Irish Naval service in rescuing thousands of individuals from certain death at sea but we could play a greater role in the resettlement of refugees. As a country and as people our responses fluctuate  from a great compassion, generosity  and wanting to help,  to a  fear of being ‘taken over’ by people whose ethnicity, language, customs, and religious traditions are different,  and a fear that it will impact negatively on our  services for our own ‘vulnerable’ people.

Pope Francis has called on every parish and religious community to accommodate one refugee family and recently we were reminded by our President that “there are times in our life when we have to decide to do what is right”.   I believe that time is now.   We Irish are compassionate and caring and can respond with generosity. The collective outpouring of generosity and concern expressed by thousands of individuals in response to appeals for help proves this. In our own county,  Monaghan Credit Unions are helping to fund the cost of items needed by refugee families and unaccompanied minors as they reach Milan in Italy. Monaghan Institute has set up a collection point for goods to delivered to Syrian refugees who are camped at Calais in France. These initiatives are commendable.

Jean Claude Juncker, Head of the European Commission reminded us that it should not require a punch in the moral solar plexus to remember our past.  He went on to say: “Imagine for a second if it were you, your children in your arms, the world you know torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay, no wall you would not climb, and no sea you would not go to sea in, no border you would not cross.”

I suggest that perhaps our fears around the issue are unfounded and instead of seeing migrants or refugees as a ‘problem’ and a financial liability we view them as an opportunity to be our best selves as a compassionate and generous people and in the process gain financially and culturally. Imagine a town where much of the buildings are boarded up and the younger population have emigrated and the local people are disheartened.   Welcoming refugees could be mutually beneficial.   Yes, our way of life may be disrupted but it could also be enriched by sharing our culture and customs with ‘strangers’ and telling our stories, inviting them to be part of our GAA games, cultural nights etc. We would expand our knowledge of others cultures and customs and in turn we learn about the life of migrants and their fears, hopes and dreams.

However for this to happen, a different ‘mind set’ needs to be brought to the resettlement programmes.  Local communities and agencies need to be involved at all levels and the hopes and fears of the refugees need to be respected.   Additional resources need to be invested into communities to provide culturally appropriate services, and ways to welcome people.   With thoughtful and planned local integration programme refugees could bring much needed lifeblood and indeed economic stimulus to small towns.

Ireland needs to be part of the solution — it needs to promote a unified compassionate response.   The numbers are daunting but we can do more. We can lobby, pray and work for the safety and care of the refugees in their search for acceptance and that the EU, the UN, and world leaders will be inspired in their efforts to bring about a successful and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Last week, I and a group of individuals from six other religious orders, members of the Irish branch of Vivat International, an international peace and justice NGO with consultative status at the UN, highlighted via a national newspaper the fact that we are deeply concerned about this worsening humanitarian crisis.  You can also play your part by contacting your local Oireachtas representatives and asking them if they will lobby so that the Government will:

  • Communicate fully with NGO’s, local communities, and relevant agencies when refugees are being housed in an area.
  • Ensure that resources needed to help the homeless are not diverted to the refugee crisis.
  • Ensure that families and individuals in ‘Direct Provision’ for years are fast tracked out of Direct Provision.
  • Continue the great work of the Irish Navy Service in saving lives in the Mediterranean
  • Call on the European Commission to be a strong voice for refugees and migrants at a European level and for a united EU response
  • Encourage and support lasting solutions by world powers to tackle the conflicts and the climate crisis that lead to refugees fleeing their own countries.