The Al Fakir family in Dunshaughlin.

Initiative piloted in Dunshaughlin wins international award

An initiative that saw a Syrian family relocated to Dunshaughlin has resulted in Ireland winning the first-ever winner international award for promoting community sponsorship as a means of providing housing to refugee families.

The State launched a pilot community sponsorship model in December 2018 as an alternative way to resettle refugees in Ireland. Under the programme, towns and villages across Ireland were encouraged to “sponsor” a vulnerable refugee family.

Since then, five Syrian refugee families have been welcomed into communities across the country.

Earlier this year the Dunshaughlin based family thanked the people of the village for the ‘love’ they had felt since they arrived before Christmas. In a welcome party at Dunshaughlin Pastoral Centre in Angham, Al Fakir said they had been on the “journey of a lifetime”, but that everybody had made it so easy for them.

Angham, her husband, Zuhair, and young daughter, Lorca, arrived from Lebanon, where they had been living in very bad circumstances, through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They were the first to arrive in Ireland under the new community sponsorship programme that was officially launched in March by the Government. 

Zuhair, Lorca and  Angham Al Fakir in Dunshaughlin.

The Al Fakirs had been living in Lebanon, where Zuhair had been working in TV production, but as he had lost his Syrian identification papers and documents which allowed him live in Lebanon, he was in constant danger, particularly as he could not return to Syria. When he had earlier returned to Syria for a family reason, he was arrested and disappeared for 15 days.

While they admited that they had not been through as many horrors as other Syrian families have, losing life and limbs, they have experienced the traumas of the civil war in the Middle Eastern state.“After the Syrian crisis ... war, ... revolution, we found ourselves in a trap,” Zuhair, who had been living and working in Lebanon since 1997, explains. “We lost our legal protection in the Lebanon, and the only option was to go to the UNHCR to get alternative documents.”

In 2017, an opportunity arose to go to Argentina on a UNHCR resettlement, but they declined that due to language difficulties. Then, the chance to come to Ireland arose, and they were interviewed by Irish officials last June, before being approved to come here.

The concept of community sponsorship dates back four decades to Canada where the system was first established. Since then, more than 300,000 refugees have been resettled across the country through the scheme.

The Al Fakir family with Nola Leonard who spearheaded the initiative 

The Dunshaughlin initiative was spearheaded by Nola Leonard, who was influenced by Pope Francis’ call last year to all countries to look after families displaced by the Syrian crisis. A group of nine worked together on the project locally, with a suitable property located, and members helped the family settle since their arrival last December. Ms Leonard says she is 'delighted.' 

"It's a wonderful initiative and we should be encouraging everyone to take part in community sponsorship. It's a much better way to welcome refugees into the community. They are a wonderful family and we are really just friends now and that is what the whole point of community sponsorship is about, the community taking a family into their heart.  We are now even thinking about doing another one."

The international award was presented to Eibhlin Byrne, director of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme on Tuesday in London in recognition of Ireland’s contribution in establishing the first phase of community sponsorship and “sharing your enthusiasm and expertise with others”.  

Minister of State for Immigration David Stanton commended the communities which had signed up to take part in the project, describing their support for families as “true examples of the values of welcome and friendship that are so central to Irish life”.

Following the success of the pilot scheme, an official Community Sponsorship Ireland national programme is expected to be announced by the Government in the coming weeks.