A few years ago, I received a phone call. A friend asked me if I had any small jobs in the garden that needed doing. The answer to that one is always a firm ‘YES’. The offer of help came with a moral dilemma attached. He had befriended a young asylum seeker, a man in his early twenties, who was living in the Eyre Powell Hotel in the town.
The question was, would I give him money for a few hours work and not tell anyone. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work. They are forced to be dependant on the state. The allowance for asylum seekers at the time was, and still is, less than €20 a week. How anyone can live on that is beyond me.
I decided that I would feed him and give him cash in return for a few hours in the garden. I did so because if one of my children was alone in a strange land, I would want someone to do the same. He arrived the next day. Kasim was the same age as my nephew. We got on immediately.
Despite our languages being different, we shared the same sense of humour. That first day we met, I made him a sandwich for lunch. I took it out to him. He laughed when he saw it and made it clear that there was not enough food. Not used to feeding young men, I went back in and brought out a hearty bowl of soup, a packet of biscuits and a can of Red Bull.
I’d see him two, maybe three times a year. He would update me on things. Life here was a horrible waiting game. That it what it is like for asylum seekers in the Eyre Powell Hotel. A waiting game: waiting to see if the courts will give you refugee status. Over time, Kasim’s English got better and he settled. That was thanks to the support of the people of Newbridge who took him under their wing.
It was hard not to like Kasim. He was such a nice guy to have around. Intelligent, kind, witty and great with my kids who were young at the time. I learned that he was an only child. There was one particular day that I shall remember forever. I’ll share it because I was reminded of it this morning. It was a sunny Autumnal day, just like today, when he arrived at my door.
I hadn’t seen our friend for the whole summer. We went into the garden and looked at the overgrown bushes and I left him to work his magic on the weeds. A few hours later, I did my usual Mrs Doyle thing of going out with a tray laden with a mountain of food.
Normally we’d have a laugh about my portion sizes but this day was different. It was clear to see that he had been crying. “What’s the matter Kasim?” I asked him. He took the tray from me silently. We sat down together. “I dreamt of my mother last night” he said.
I had never asked him about his family before. He was such a buoyant, life enhancing person, an open book. But his own family was something that he never discussed. “She comes to me in my dreams at night. I see her face”. With that, the tears fell freely. I put my arm around him as he sobbed. Then he told me his story.
His parents owned a shop and lived above it. It was the only one in their small village and it sold basic provisions that all families rely upon along with a small selection of alcoholic drinks. The Taliban, with their strict regime, had taken controlof many of the towns in the area and Kasim’s small village was next.
They came to the shop and ordered his father to stop selling alcohol. He didn’t. Kasim came home one day to find hisuncle standing in front of the building, trying to shield him from the horrific view. The small building had been burnt to the ground. The bodies of his mother and father were in sacks by the front door, tortured and brutally murdered by the Taliban.
Imagine this in your town. Imagine if this happened tomorrow. The guards would be called. The local community would be outraged, the media would spend days reporting from the scene for Sky News. But in Kasim’s homeland, thisbrutality happens every single day. For a whole generation of people young and old, it has become their ‘normal’.
The Taliban took control of the tiny village. With everythinggone, his family, his home, there was a grim future ahead ofhim. He did exactly what I would do in the same situation, he left his homeland to find somewhere safe to live and start again.
Kasim, still only a teenager, made the journey to Europe. With many other asylum seekers, he found himself in Belgium,there they were allocated a country. He was sent to Ireland. Despite living in the Eyre Powell hotel, sharing a room with a stranger, sharing a kitchen, not being allowed to work until he was granted legal status, Kasim never complained because he felt safe.
Very soon, hundreds of Syrians will arrive in our county. LikeKasim, many of them will have experienced unimaginable suffering for the last few years. We have been told that 500 will arrive in Monasterevin, at the Hazel Hotel. As a community, we must reach out to them in whatever way we can. Welcoming refugees should come easy to the Irish. You’ve done it before.
In the seventeenth century over 250,000 Protestants were forced out of France for their religious beliefs. Over 10,000 came to Ireland. They settled in Waterford, Cork, Dublin andPort Arlington, where the French church from 1696 still stands to day.
On behalf of my ancestors, thank you.