We all know what a difference it makes, arriving in a strange place, to be made to feel welcome and at home, sometimes by a simple act like a smile and a warm handshake. How much more important this is for people who have lost everything and arrive in Ireland fearful, uprooted and traumatised.
Places of Sanctuary Ireland (PoSI) is a network of groups in cities, towns and local communities whose primary aim is to create a culture of welcome, safety and inclusion for refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants, many of whom are seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. It creates opportunities for Irish people to meet these newcomers to our country, to hear their stories and to help them find a new home here among us. The movement is resonating with many, with a growing number of cities, towns, villages and counties of sanctuary across the island of Ireland, and the vision is to facilitate opportunities for so many people and organisations that eventually the whole country resonates welcome and inclusion – a living model of cead mile failte.
There are other organisations which provide services to refugees and asylum-seekers and lobby government on their behalf. We aim to support these groups in every way, promoting the welfare and inclusion of refugees and migrants in all sectors of society; but ours is a more grassroots initiative. It brings ordinary Irish people together with refugees and other immigrants to make them feel welcome, help them make friends and integrate fully and harmoniously into our society.
So how does a Place of Sanctuary work, and how does this transformation take place? We work around three basic types of activity, neatly summarised by an ABC: Awareness-Raising, Befriending, and Cultural Engagement. Ideally they build on each other, with Awareness-Raising providing the foundation. These approaches have been tried and tested in many locations.
We see welcome and integration as a two-way process, built on the natural desire to welcome held by many Irish people and the belief that these newcomers have a huge amount to o er Irish society. We want to ensure that connections are made, refugee voices are heard and their skills and talents are given opportunity to flourish for their good and that of Irish society as a whole.
While there is a lot of support and good will, there is also considerable confusion and ignorance about migration, asylum seekers and refugees. Many people are unsure of the difference between ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’; many do not understand what resettlement from UNHCR camps means, nor the various ways by which asylum seekers have arrived in Ireland, Calais, Greece or Italy. These simple facts, backed up by real life stories, need to be made immediately accessible. We help local groups to bring tailored awareness-raising packages into different sectors – in schools, universities, sports centres, churches, health centres, libraries, council buildings, political meetings and community centres.