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Rohingyas lives in Carlow are a far cry from persecution in Burma

Minister of State Mary White T.D., visits resettled Rohingya in Carlow 09 July 2010 Photo: M Rafique

THAT first night they huddled together in one room, sleeping on the floor despite the availability of beds … they had never slept in a bed before and didn’t know how to start.

Carlow was a world away from their home of plastic huts, limited food supply, no free movement and no civil rights. It was a world away from the tyrannical regime that oversaw their refugee camp in Bangladesh, where they were considered a stateless race, a forgotten community fleeing from persecution within their home country of Burma (Myanmar).

That was June 2009, when 13 Rohingya families, a total of 64 individuals, arrived in Carlow town as part of a resettlement programme brokered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The families were comprised of 23 adults, 14 teenagers and 27 children, all of whom had been living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, many for up to 19 years.

“We had never even heard of Ireland,” smiles Mohammed Rafique, as he recalls that fateful day six years ago when he ‘landed’ in Carlow. “When we got off the plane in Dublin, they had to give us blankets because we were freezing. We didn’t have the language and didn’t know anything about where we were going.”

Following an induction of six weeks in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, the Rohingyan community was brought to Carlow.

Rafique recalls how, that first night, many families slept together in the same room on the floor, a mixture of apprehension, fear and mistrust, as they were taken to their new homes with stocked fridges, rooms for every family member and extraordinary levels of kindness everywhere they turned. It was a first for the community, who had only known life in the refugee camp, which was full of restrictions in terms of food, education, medical care, and movement.

“You also have to contend with and face rape, false cases being logged against you, extortion, control by the local people. Young children do not get proper treatment and nutrition to meet their basic needs; malnutrition is a major issue in camp life,” Rafique told The Nationalist.

“When we came to Carlow after a few weeks of orientation in Ballyhaunis, we were wondering if what we were being told was real or a dream. A lot of things were new and we couldn’t believe that we were getting this opportunity, that this was really happening,” he added.

The community were placed in houses all over Carlow town, then daily came to St Catherine’s Community Services, where the support and care they received was invaluable.

The process of making Ireland their new home began in November 2008, when Carlow County Development Board, as part of the UNHCR resettlement programme, was asked by the Office of the Minister for Integration (OMI) to facilitate the resettlement programme.

The community and enterprise section of Carlow Local Authorities, on behalf of Carlow CDB, set up an interagency resettlement committee with relevant agencies, including Carlow Local Authorities, the HSE, Carlow VEC, Department of Education, Department of Social Protection, the gardaí, Carlow Regional Youth Services, County Carlow Development Partnership, Carlow Volunteer Centre, Women’s Aid and St Catherine’s Community Services Centre, which was selected as the lead agency.

For a year, all the agencies prepared for the huge task of welcoming the Rohingya community, ensuring that everything was in place. They even prepared a welcome party in the Seven Oaks Hotel for their first week here, a stark contrast to the appalling persecution Rohingyas had faced in Bangladesh.

However, it was still not an easy transition for the community, moving to Ireland, to a new culture with no formal education or English. But with the support of the Carlow community, the families began to integrate into the locality.

“The language was a real problem. We had two full-time interpreters with us in the beginning, but even getting interpreters with Rohingya was difficult,” explained Thomas Farrell from St Catherine’s, who was programme co-ordinator with the Rohingya community at the time.

On arrival, supports were put in place through funding under the European Refugee Fund and from the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration in the Department of Justice, along with matched funding locally. English classes were provided through Carlow Adult Learning Centre in the ETB.

“The programme was heavily supported by local agencies, schools, health workers, gardaí and the local community, without which the programme would not have been a success,” added Niall Morris, manager of St Catherine’s. “The first year was the most difficult. They had an awful lot to learn about how things work here in Ireland and the process was slow, but by the second year people began to blossom and become independent,” said Thomas.

On arrival, each family was assigned local befrienders, who aided the families in the first year-and-a-half to become independent and self-sufficient. This was supported though the volunteer centre and the integration centre/integration forum.

It is evident from talking to the community how much they valued the local support. Six years after arriving in Carlow, all (with the exception of one) are still living in the town.

A father of two, Rafique points out the stark contrast in maternity care his wife and children received: one child was born in the refugee camp, while his second daughter was delivered in St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny.

His eyes fill with tears as he recalls his first daughter’s birth, with absolutely no pre-natal care and in the appalling conditions of a refugee camp without any medical assistance. It was a world away from the wonderful care the family received as they welcomed their second daughter into the world.

“We got a lot of opportunities from the local people, organisations and St Catherine’s Community Services Centre. Clare Cody was a great support to us and each family had two volunteers to support and show us around for almost two years,” said Rafique.

“The Carlow Regional Youth Services gave great support to the young people and continue to support us. Without the support of local people and organisations, we could not have settled in Carlow. Now we are free,” he smiles.

“In Carlow now, we have many new things. We have now had two opportunities to vote, we have participated in the St Patrick’s Day parades, local events and had our own art exhibition, to name a few. We were really happy that we were able to give something back to Carlow by our involvement in re-establishing the Carlow Cricket Club. Every week, we have new members and the club is open to all nationalities. This is really good for Carlow,” Rafique added.

The community continues to thrive in Carlow, the majority now as naturalised Irish citizens. While the community faces the same difficulties as everyone else in finding employment, five members of the community are currently in employment and one member has established his own restaurant. One member of the community has completed a course in website design, while another is studying law in college.

“The six years have gone by so fast,” admits Rafique, who adds that during this time seven children have been born into the community, while many from the community are attending local schools in the town.

“They speak ‘ronglish’ now,” laughs Rafique.

“The resettlement programme was a great opportunity for us. The UNHCR and Irish government gave us an opportunity of a normal life and we really appreciate and thank them for their hard work for us to resettle in Carlow.

Rohingya Carlow, Ireland

Photo: M Rafique

“One major success for us is that the majority of us are now Irish citizens. Even though we were born in Burma, we did not enjoy citizenship there and were stateless in our own land. It is hard to express how happy I am that now I have the same rights, dignity as Irish people and freedom of movement. This passport has given us the chance to participate in society and to support our community,” he said.

It is with sadness that Rafique thinks of the current crisis the Rohingya in Burma now face. Many of the community here in Carlow still have family there and are, understandably, deeply worried for their safety.

“Regardless of what I had suffered and my family had suffered, the current suffering of Rohingya in Burma is much worse,” said Rafique.

“We urge all international communities, including all NGOs, all governments and all human beings to call to stop the killings of Rohingya. We specially urge the European Commission office to raise their strong voice for the protection of Rohingya. Please don’t look at us as a race or a different religious group, but as human beings,” Rafique pleaded.

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