215 refugees housed in Co Wexford
David Looby and Brendan Keane speak with two of the women on the frontline as Wexford extends a warm welcome to refugee families
Two hundred and fifteen refugees - the vast majority coming from war-torn Syria - have been housed in County Wexford by the local authority in a 20-month period.
The first of the 47 refugee families arrived in May 2017 under the Government's Irish Refugee Protection Programme - which is tasked with accommodating 4,000 Syrian people in Ireland.
The Syrian families, who have been left with little option but to abandon their native country, have been allocated three and four bed council houses in County Wexford, offering them a level of comfort most have not seen in several years. There are also several Iraqi families and a Iraqi Kurdish family which have been housed here.
Senior Staff Officer in Wexford County Council's Housing Capital department, Noirín Cummins said the local authorities became involved after the Government agreed to take 4,000 refugees.
'In 2016 we were contacted by the Irish Refugee Protection Programme and they came down and gave a presentation to the local authority here. Initially we were allocated 150 refugees and then another exercise was carried out and the allocation went from 150 to 210 for County Wexford,' Noirín said.
The allocation was based on population and the council's housing list. 'In the end 213 refugees came from Lebanon or Greece originally and most were settled in the emergency and orientation centre in Clonea, Dungarvan. They were there for at least two months,' Noirin says.
Another two refugees arrived into the county since bringing the total number to 215.
'It was decided that we would create four clusters in the four main towns where the houses were available. Apart from that it was because it's far more than housing as we needed all of the support services. We set up an inter-agency working group before they arrived and the local authority has the lead role in the group with the Irish Refugee Protection Programme.'
On the inter-agency group sits representatives from the HSE, Department of Social Protection, Tusla, Education and Training Board, Citizen's Information and creche and other support providers.
'They all had to bring something from their expertise to the support services. We bought the houses for them through funding from the Department of Housing, Planning & Local Government. It didn't impact on funding for other housing projects.'
Each group that sits on the inter-agency group has to bring something to the project.
'We bought houses and we worked with approved housing bodies. The families that went into the approved housing bodies are like social housing tenants so they have the house for life if they so wish. We provided the houses and the Department of Social Protection fitted them out and there were grants for white goods.'
Noirín praised the work of Doras Luimní, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation which works to promote and support the rights of migrants in Ireland.
She said the work their team of five support staff - led by Hannah Culkin - do in County Wexford is funded by the Department of Justice.
'I think the success of the project in Wexford is really down to Doras Luimní being here providing all of those services because their needs were great when they arrived. Even the orientation to show them where their shops were was vital.'
Noirín said the Department of Justice funding always had a limited time-scale so they are now withdrawing it after two years.
'We have been told it will be April or May. The Department of Justice are funding the support scheme. That was always time limited but Wexford County Council hope to continue to provide and fund some level of supports for the county's new 215 (and growing) citizens, including offering interpretative assistance.
'We will always be there to meet their housing needs and we would hope to continue providing supports on a much lower scale,' she added.
Today there are 13 refugee families based in Wexford town, 12 in New Ross and Enniscorthy and nine in Gorey.
Four families have been allocated houses in Rosbercon, New Ross, through Kilkenny County Council.
The final two families were allocated houses in mid-January and Wexford County Council has been one of, if not the, quickest to accommodate the families nationally.
'It's the start of a new life for them and they are so house proud,' Noirin says, alluding to how anyone who enters a Syrian home is offered a cup of fresh coffee and some Syrian food.
Noirin has visited all of the families and was there when they were handed their house keys. 'It was very emotional. It's a huge day for them. You see them arriving with their belongings on a bus and they are just so very appreciative.'
Some of the families took a little time acclimatising to their Irish house living-room as in Syria the husband would have a reception room and the woman would have a different reception area.
'Culturally we are different. The difference of their original home to what they had endured in the camps to what they have now is massive. One man said he lived in a tent that was smaller than the kitchen table he was sitting at.'
Funded by the Department of Justice, the refugees have been availing of a suite of supports through Doras Luimní, including 20 hours per week of English classes meaning younger children are cared for at creches across the county and at schools where they have settled in fantastically well, Noirin said.
She said: 'I find it to be such rewarding project. The families are coming to us so it is very rewarding and I am delighted to be part of it. We (in Wexford County Council' Housing department), house people every week, but clearly their needs were huge,'
Many of the men and women who have arrived in County Wexford over recent months worked all their lives, having received a good education. These include people who are from a professional working class background in Syria and all are more than willing to work and contribute to Irish society.
Noirin: 'They are very sociable. The fact that there hasn't been any backlash has to do with all the supports that have been put in place by Doras Luimní. Imagine arriving in a country with just your baggage.'
Hannah praised the 30-plus volunteers who have helped the family members, most of whom range in ages from newborns to men and women in their forties. Many speak good English and are progressing very quickly, she added.
Hannah said: 'We are at 215 with babies and some family reunification also.'
Under the Irish Humanitarian Admissions Programme family reunification scheme some families have been able to get their elderly parent(s) resettled with them.
'It was quite restricted to a parent, spouse or a child under 18.'
Wexford has embraced Syrian refugees
The woman who oversaw the programme to integrate Syrian refugees into Co Wexford has said the people of the county fully embraced the initiative and made the people coming here very welcome.
Hannah Culkin, who is the Refugee Resettlement Manager with Doras Luimni, met with this newspaper to discuss the programme which is nearing its end after a two-year period that saw 215 people settle in Wexford from a country that has been ravaged by war.
Doras Luimni is an independent, non-profit, non-Governmental, organisation that works to promote and protect human rights.
Integration planning is a key component of what the organisation does and that was also a priority aspect of the work Hannah has done in Wexford over the last two years in conjunction with Wexford County Council.
Doras Luimni was set up in Limerick in 2000 and the first resettlement programme took place in Co Laois in 2015.
Now that the programme is winding down in Wexford Hannah said the last meeting of the inter-agency committee will take place this coming Thursday.
She underlined the fact that sometimes the general public have a misconception about refugees.
'They have been invited to Ireland by the Government's resettlement programme,' she said.
The inter-agency group in Wexford is composed of Hannah, Noirín Cummins, Sulafa Ali, Kamal Tribak and Mercedes Hoad Moussa.
'We won the tender to administer the resettlement programme in Wexford,' said Hannah.
'Our job is to support the families on a daily basis,' she added.
That support is provided in a number of ways and many of the things that Irish people take for granted are completely new learning experiences for the Syrian people who are here.
'A big part of our work is collaborating with partner organisations,' said Hannah.
In some ways the role of Hannah's organisation was to coordinate the programme between the families and services and for her it was a case of liaising between all of the people and organisations involved.
'With families arriving it's a case of helping them get to grips with their new surroundings and we mustn't forget what it is they're coming from,' she said.
'The things we take for granted like going to the supermarket, knowing bus stops and timetables, and making appointments, these are some of the everyday things we help them with.'
Doras Luimni also works with the Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board (WWETB) to give the Syrian people English classes.
Hannah, who is from Galway, was full of praise for the people of Co Wexford who she said made the refugees feel very welcome.
'Yes, there will always be one or two people who have concerns but the vast majority of people have been so welcoming and that's something that the Syrian people themselves have spoken about,' she said.
'The families have been warmly welcomed in Wexford,' she added.
'They say the people in Wexford people are always happy and smiling.'
The inter-agency group has also developed a team of around 30 volunteers in Co Wexford and Hannah said their input and support has been invaluable.
'We organise home visits too because that helps people get comfortable in their new surroundings.'
When the programme winds down it's expected the volunteers will provide ongoing help and support to the refugees as they integrate themselves in their local communities.
'We have a befriending programme and the volunteers go to some people's homes as well,' said Hannah.
The Syrians were also offered tutoring in English under the ESL (English as a Second Language) initiative and that was delivered by retired teachers and people who never did such work before but were trained.
'We are rolling out a family advocacy programme at the moment as well,' said Hannah.
For her the human aspect of the programme is always at the forefront: 'These are people and they had lives before they came here.'
'They are human beings just like us.'
Last month the first Wexford integration network meeting took place and saw around 20 different stakeholder organisations represented.