By Francesca Pierigh *
He did not know what he was getting into, but it turned out to be an incredible journey. Michael Nolan explains how the small Irish town of Wicklow became involved with community sponsorship and why it was – and still is – such a worthwhile experience.
Michael (Mick) Nolan is Chair of the Community Sponsorship Group Wicklow Syria Appeal in Ireland. A small entrepreneur, married and father of two children, Nolan has been living in Wicklow for over 20 years. “There is a wonderful sense of community,” he says, “everything is accessible and it is a great place to live, work and play.”
Wicklow is a small town of about 10,000 people, approximately an hour south of Dublin. In 2003, the town hosted the Syrian delegation for the Special Olympics – a worldwide sporting event for athletes with intellectual disabilities. That was the beginning of a life-long connection with Syria for the local community.
How small municipalities like Wicklow are engaging in resettlement was one of the topics addressed by the SHARE Conference, held in Brussels on 21-22 October 2019. We met Mick Nolan at the event and had the following conversation.
[ICMC] Where did the idea of sponsoring a Syrian refugee family come from?
[Mick Nolan] In 2015, a very good friend of mine, Dermot Costello, said to me: “Mick, do you remember 2003, the Special Olympics? We had the Syrian delegation stay with us. Look at the news, we cannot stand by and do nothing.” And then he asked: “Are you on board?” It was very difficult to say no, so I said, “Yes, Dermot, I am in.”
At the time, the Irish government had pledged to welcome 4,000 Syrian refugees and we thought that some of them could come and live in Wicklow. But when it became clear that the government’s pledge would not be fulfilled, we decided to do our best to bring a refugee family to live in the town.
Dermot managed to put together a group of people who were interested in his project, myself included. We had absolutely no idea of how to go about it and knew nothing about community sponsorship. We just had a lot of enthusiasm and commitment.
How did you manage to bring this idea to life?
Well, again, it all really started with Dermot. First, we had a town hall meeting in 2016 to bring together as many people as possible to support the cause. That is where the idea of the Wicklow Syria Appeal came from – a group of people committed to supporting refugees and to bring a Syrian family to Wicklow.
There were 15 people in the original group, but we knew we had the support of the whole community – people would join in from time to time to offer their time and services for free – builders, solicitors, engineers, electricians, etc…
After that first meeting, we reached out to second-level schools. We talked with young people to create awareness and as a way to bring the conversation into the homes of the community – and this worked really well.
Dermot had started researching how other countries were supporting refugees and soon found out about the Canadian sponsorship system. That model provided us with some concrete steps to achieve our goal. We then reached out to NGOs in Ireland and found that the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre (NASC) in the southern city of Cork was the best fit for what we wanted to do.
How were you able to identify the Syrian refugee family to resettle?
NASC already knew of a potential family, the Al Sulaimans. They are a family of nine (mom, dad and seven children) and also had a daughter, Majdoleen, already living in Cork, where she had arrived as a refugee. The Al Sulaimans were at the time living in Lebanon and their daughter could apply for family reunification. However, she needed to show that she could support her whole family in her application, which was clearly impossible.
So that is where we came in. We decided to support the family in her application and provide the financial resources needed. We signed a memorandum of understanding with NASC in 2016.
We gave our commitment straight away and I think that that showed our innocence, our naivety. We did not know how to do it yet or what we had got ourselves into, but that did not matter; there was a family and we wanted to bring that family to Ireland.
What was Wicklow Syria Appeal’s role after signing the memorandum with NASC?
We needed to act quickly and come up with the house and financial assistance. For the funding, we were able to receive some of it through the Irish Red Cross, but most of it came through donations from local individuals, business, sports clubs and charitable organizations.
Finding a house for the family was very challenging. We are facing a housing crisis in the country and there are people losing their homes on what feels like an almost daily basis. We needed to make sure we were not jumping the queue ahead of homeless people.
The other issue is that rents are very high. Even if the family would qualify for the so-called housing allowance payment, that in itself would not have been enough to cover all of the rent. So in many aspects, we had to settle for a house which was not ideal. For example, it was a little bit too small for a family of nine to begin with.
We were able to identify a run-down house in Wicklow and we approached the owner with the help of a local real estate agent. She agreed to us renovating the house in exchange for a rent-free period during renovation and an affordable rent once the Al Sulaimans would move in.
When did the family arrive?
From the moment we signed the memorandum, it took seven months for the family to arrive and the Wicklow Syria Appeal had existed for one year prior to that. Unfortunately, the person who initiated this, Dermot Costello, was not able to see the family arrive in Wicklow as he passed away at the beginning of 2018. The group felt a greater sense of urgency to bring the family to Ireland, also as a way to honor our friend’s memory.
The Al Sulaiman family arrived on 24 April 2018. A group of us went to the Dublin airport with their daughter Majdoleen and her family. It was very emotional for them to see their daughter and their grandchildren and it was very emotional for us to see the family meeting again after so long. I have to say, it also felt slightly daunting for us as to what lay ahead.
We brought the Al Sulaimans to Wicklow where we showed them the house we had prepared for them. From that day their life in Wicklow officially started.>
What were some of the challenges that you faced?
We faced challenges of course, but I want to highlight that they have to be put into the perspective of the hugely positive nature of community sponsorship.
Finding a house for the family was very difficult, as I mentioned already. Renovating and preparing it was also challenging. We had to have insurance cover on the house and that proved very difficult because we were just a group of volunteers and not a legal entity.
Another big challenge was managing expectations. We had three groups involved. First, the volunteers, who were very passionate, driven and eager but without experience in supporting refugees. Then, we had the NGO, which was very cautious because they are used to dealing with public services. It was only natural that there were differences between the two: the volunteers wanted everything to happen yesterday and the NGO was more conservative.
And then of course, we had the family who was coming to live with us. They had heard all sorts of things about the country, the house, the town, the lifestyle. To avoid disappointments, we really needed to explain in advance where they were going and what they were coming to.
And finally, communication has been a huge challenge. We had a WhatsApp group with the family in Lebanon so we could chat a bit before they arrived, using Google Translate. But so much got lost in translation – they were not getting the nuances and neither were we.
We understood the need to employ professional interpreters, especially when there were important messages to be communicated. We were actually able to find a professional interpreter thanks to the story the Irish Times published about the family.
Now it is getting better – the family’s English has improved enormously. The children have a very good command of English and the parents have a good understanding of the language. So, daily communication is much less of an issue, though we still have difficulties when we have to deal with important topics.
And what about the positive aspects of the experience?
The whole experience was hugely positive. I had the chance to work with an incredible group of people to make this happen. And on the personal level, it is one of the most challenging but at the same time one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life.
I do not think that anyone involved in community sponsorship wants to talk about their personal experiences because it is not about them. However, I do understand that the only way to encourage other communities to follow suit and to embrace community sponsorship is to let them know how good this can be. And it is incredible.
When you see where the family has come from, then you see them arrive, partly shocked, partly overwhelmed, certainly happy to see their daughter again… and then you see them settle, the children learning the language very quickly, participating in sports, going to school. You see that the parents are happy because their children are happy.
Yes, they are facing challenges all the way, but they are learning and settling in.
What is the situation now?
The family has been with us for more than a year now. We are always 100% there to support them but nowadays, we support them in different ways. We no longer provide financial support as they are now self-sufficient. But we still support them with education, health and housing – three very big issues – and many other smaller matters.
The Al Sulaimans are now part of the community. We are and will always be there for them. When we set out to welcome them, we knew that this involvement had a beginning, but it has no end.
What are your plans for the future?
We are working with NGOs, especially with the Irish Refugee Council, to encourage other communities – in Ireland but also in other countries – to get involved in sponsorship programs. And I can tell you that it is a difficult message to get out there. That is why I participated in the SHARE Conference in Brussels.
We wrote a playbook of the whole experience, an A to Z booklet of what happened and what you need to know. One of our challenges was that there were no resources about community sponsorship when we started. In fact, we did not even know that what we wanted to do was called community sponsorship. We were a pilot project, pioneers without knowing it.
So the idea behind preparing this playbook is to provide a support mechanism for interested groups. People coming together for this purpose have a lot of motivation, but they are not experts. We believe that this resource can be very useful to them.
The Irish government is going to launch a community sponsorship scheme quite soon and I really hope that they will take our experience into consideration. There should be support mechanisms for sponsorship groups. If the government worked with all the actors involved, the groups who have done sponsorships or are planning to do it and the NGOs involved, we could collectively come up with something far better than the system currently in place*.
* Known as direct provision, the current Irish system to house asylum-seekers was established as a temporary measure in 2000. The mechanism is built on full board, lodging and a small weekly allowance, in centers spread around the country. The system has been sharply criticized as detrimental to family life, integration prospects, mental health and general well-being for asylum- seekers who regularly have to spend several years in those structures while waiting for a decision on their application.
The SHARE Integration Network provides a platform for exchange and learning amongst local and regional actors working on or considering refugee resettlement. It advocates for greater and better resettlement and other complementary admission pathways in Europe. The network was established in March 2012 and is led by ICMC Europe.
* Francesca Pierigh is a freelance communications and research consultant.