In the last few years, issues of displacement and resettlement for those seeking refuge from war and violence has become increasingly important across the world. Since 2011, the Syrian War has thrown millions of people into a state of displacement, travelling thousands of miles to seek asylum in countries in which they will be safe from war and persecution. European governments, including Ireland, in 2015-16 committed to resettling Syrian refugees in several EU countries through traditional government resettlement programmes. As the years draw on and many EU countries have broken promises or failed to meet quotas, alternative pathways to resettlement and integration are looking more attractive. These alternatives also appear to be more successful in the long term.
Community Sponsorship is a pathway to resettlement that involves refugees being welcomed directly into a community by a group of people who have already committed to helping them settle in and integrate into the community. The concept was created in Canada in the late 1970s, with 300,000 refugees successfully resettled since that time. It involves a community group who commit to providing financial, social and administrative support to a refugee family (or individual) and give them a helping hand into beginning their life in this community. The focus of community sponsorship, according to Nasc (the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre) is “promoting independence, agency and social inclusion for the [Community] Groups and the refugee families”. Generally, the Community Group fundraise a sum of money, source accommodation for the family, and provide language, healthcare and educational support to help the family integrate. Rather than being dropped into an unfamiliar country, often with an unfamiliar language and culture, forced to start from scratch; the family already have an in-built support system and social group to slot into and begin their new life.
In 2015, Ireland committed to resettling 4,000 refugees through the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, of which community sponsorship was one strand. Just over 2,500 refugees have arrived in the four years since the IRPP began. In Ireland, the pilot scheme for Community Sponsorship was launched in 2017 with the first family arriving in Ireland in December 2018. The Al Fakir family from Syria were resettled in Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath, and quickly became involved in community activities such as the local ‘Park Run’, with their daughter Lorca attending a local primary school. Through community sponsorship, five Syrian families have been welcomed into communities in Cork, Meath and Waterford since the scheme was launched. Unlike people arriving into Direct Provision centres, those arriving into Ireland through Community Sponsorship have already been given refugee status and have been identified as needing resettlement. Community Sponsorship takes the responsibility of welcoming refugee families out of the hands of impersonal government officials and forms, and into the open arms of a community ready to welcome them with support and friendship.
One Community Group who have made this commitment to welcome a refugee family are the St Luke’s Welcomes group in St Luke’s, Cork City who are working along with Nasc to resettle a family in their community. The group was established in the Spring of 2019, by a few members of the community who realised they all shared a desire to act regarding the ongoing refugee crisis. Several of the members had been involved already with the work of Nasc, while for others this is their first taste of activism. One of the members, Jean, talked about how a leaflet through her door from St Luke’s Welcomes coincided with her watching the emotional RTÉ series Taken Down, inspiring her to act and get involved. The group are in the process of finding a house for the family to rent in the St Luke’s area, as well as fundraising an amount of around €10,000 to help with initial costs and support. One of the group members, Maria, who is also the Nasc Community Sponsorship Project Worker, outlined that this fundraised money would go towards things such as initial rent payments, transport costs, healthcare and dentistry needs, interpretation costs and English language tuition. The aim is that these costs will be taken over by the family once they have social welfare payments or an income, but they take away some of the extra hurdles to integration presented by emergency reception centres, which are often isolated from the community.
Many members of the group believe that not only is Community Sponsorship simply a superior method than traditional resettlement, but it is particularly fitting for resettlement in Ireland. Ailbhe, a member of St Luke’s Welcomes, feels that Community Sponsorship is particularly suited to the Irish mentality and the welcoming nature of the way we live in communities in this country. She said that Irish people find it easier to get behind initiatives like this which avoid years and years of paperwork, and many people see Community Sponsorship as a refreshingly direct route compared to more traditional resettlement. All the members were surprised and touched by the level of positive response they had received from inside and outside of the St Luke’s community, with people approaching them offering many different forms of support and services.
In modern Ireland, especially in cities like Cork, we often forget the importance of communities. Initiatives like this help to remind us of the benefit that having a community and support system around us has in helping integration and building relationships. Nasc describes how Community Sponsorship requires “hard work, imagination and […] commitment” and can empower not only the resettled family, but also the community that they are welcomed into; creating stronger bonds than may have ever been possible without it.
Photo by St Luke’s Welcomes
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