Sixty-one refugees were packed onto a bus ten days ago in Dublin and ended up in Clonakilty, West Cork. The town is doing its level best to live up to its reputation for hospitality and generosity.
Roy and Margaret Maguire, who manage the Lodge, have welcomed the refugees, people who are lost and afraid, many of whom have experienced indescribable sufferings, too horrific to discuss. The Maguires are sympathetic to their situation. They are doing their best. The hotel is warm, comfortable, airy, and above all, safe. Roy Maguire talks of trying to make it one big family. He leaves with some refugees to go visit the local rugby club.
People in the town have brought up toys for the children, clothes for the refugees. Sinn Féin Councillor, Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin has spent many hours in the lodge. Voluntary English classes have been organised for the many refugees who have no means of communicating. The children are going to the local Irish school, and love it. Some refugees are already involved in local soccer leagues, and Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin has involved them in a singing group. People are up from the town inviting them to come out with them.
``It presents a marvellous opportunity,'' says Cionnaith, ``for the town to be able to meet, and learn of different cultures and experiences, which present an intense lesson in world politics and the legacy of colonialism in Africa. I hope we can arrange for the refugees to visit every school. Our community would be much the richer.
``At the same time,'' he says, ``no one should ignore the terrible situation that has been created by the Department of Justice. It has dumped these refugees into our town without any thought to the ambient racist propaganda against people who seek refuge in Ireland. There has been no provision by the government, health board or council to welcome them and explain to local people their situation and counteract ignorance or racist attitudes.
Of the refugees, he says: ``Everyone is confused. They don't know what is to happen to them, or where they are. There has been no contact with legal assistance, interpreters, or clarification of what is to happen to them. They don't know how long they are to stay.''
What happens when the tourist season starts? Government departments remain studiously silent.
The headlines scream that four out of five refugees are `bogus', the oft repeated catch cry of the Minister of Justice. ``It's not true of our refugees here,'' says Roy Maguire. ``Their stories would wither your very heart. They are too horrific to repeat. People need to come and talk with the refugees.''
The refugees themselves are relieved to be safe. Their gratitude to the town is already heart breaking. Roy was given what was headed ``an acknowledgement'' which spoke of ``having not come here to be a problem, but because of a problem, and their desire to contribute to the community.''
But that, of course, is just what they are not allowed to do. They are barred from working despite their holding many qualifications: hairdressers, international lawyers, writers, nurses, mechanics, carers, and so on. They are barred from educational courses. They receive only £15 per week. They have nothing to do except watch TV or play ludo. ``They are breaking our spirit. It is not part of our culture to take handouts,'' one Nigerian said. ``We are ashamed to sit around doing nothing.''
One young woman with a child in her arms talked, in beautiful French, of escaping along a road, bodies strewn about, of people dead or injured, nothing to eat or drink, nowhere to go, soldiers firing guns all about the place, the dreaded cholera, and, she said, ``it was all for oil they came to take.''
The refugees walk slowly, with great dignity, into the restaurant for tea, tortured people, thrown without choice, all together, into the confines of the pleasant Lodge hotel, allowed to do nothing, their self respect undermined, their suffering unnoticed.
It isn't easy. It won't be easy.