Open our homes and our hearts

March 19th, 2022 5:10 PM

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AS we expected, the Irish have been opening their homes – and hearts – in large numbers to the Ukrainian people who have begun to arrive on our island.

Well over 20,000 people have now registered online, saying they are happy to offer rooms, or entire homes, to those seeking refuge in our country.

It seems erroneous to call these people ‘refugees’ when, in our mindset, refugees are people who have long-suffered the ravages of war and more often than not, come from countries with which we had very little in common.

But when we look at these people on our televisions, in the hastily-established reception centres of Romania, Poland, Moldova and other countries, we immediately identify with them.

They wear western-branded clothes like us, they have children like ours, they clutch iphones, ipads – even bring their beloved pets in little pet carriers like ours, and in all our minds we think: there for the grace of god ….

It is, of course, not a badge of honour to say that these people, who ultimately look like us, have perhaps grabbed more of our sympathy than other ‘refugees’ for that very reason when surely, all refugees deserve our empathy.

But the sheer speed of the upheaval in their lives is another reason why their plight has touched us so strongly. We also have a genetic predisposition to recognising displaced people, as so many of our own had to leave their native land for economic, political and religious reasons.

But even government organisations are surprised by the massive response and outpouring of offers, following the appeal for accommodation last week.

There is no monetary gain involved, just the knowledge that we have done all we could, including opening our own homes, to people who just a few short weeks ago were living lives just like ours – working in factories, shops, IT companies, marketing departments, accountancy and law practices, or farming, teaching, nursing – just getting by, like the rest of us.

Who wasn’t struck by the woman who spoke of her life filled with ‘troubles and problems’ a few days before the invasion, who told a radio reporter that she would swap everything she has now just to have only those problems in her life?

A television report at the weekend included wise advice from a woman working as a counsellor in one of the reception centres. These adults you bring into your home may be incredibly quiet, or the children may be incredibly loud. Everyone processes trauma differently, she said, and they will all need psychological assistance for some time to come.

But, she also urged our authorities to note that the welcoming Irish who bring these people into their homes may also need some psychological assistance, to deal with the stories and situations they will hear and experience.

The lack of mental health assistance for our own population and the lengthy waiting lists for both children and adults trying to access such help here at home, have all been well documented.

We need to act now to ensure that we can make such help available to these traumatised people who are coming to us for refuge.

Offering homes is one wonderful element of the jigsaw which will help to put their lives back together. But we will be doing them a major disservice if we cannot offer help on all levels.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the appropriate medical professionals could come together and offer counselling free of charge, in the same way our homeowners have offered the Ukrainians a roof over their heads?

The Irish have long been fans of the meitheal system – helping each other out by exchanging goods or services. The counsellor in the reception centre said that families who welcome Ukrainians into their homes will find it a very enriching experience.

In other words, we will gain a lot of happiness in return for our kindness.

Can there be any better reward?

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