How Ballaghadereen in Co Roscommon became a town of a mile failtes for refugee families
One hundred locals descended on Spells pub and by the end of the night, the Roscommon Welcoming Committee was up and running
Barber Saj Hussain would give Mrs Doyle a run for her money on the tea front.
Nobody leaves Saj’s Barbers on Main Street without being offered a cuppa at least ten times.
Minutes after I arrive into the popular barber’s, a chap from the chipper next door drops in pizza, chips and dips.
Welcome to Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon; the town of a mile failtes.
When news broke in mid-2017 of 200 Syrian refugees moving into the disused Abbeyfield Hotel – designated an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) – locals rallied.
But protest was the last thing on their minds. They were outraged with the government’s decision to move in refugees without consultation and just 24-hours notice.
Whereas in Rooskey, Co Roscommon and Moville in Co Donegal, hotels earmarked for direct provision were firebombed, and in Ballinamore – less than 40 miles away in Leitrim – a judge last week slapped protesters with an injunction banning interference with refugees’ accommodation – the response here could not have been more different.
One hundred locals descended on Spells pub and by the end of the night, the Roscommon Welcoming Committee was up and running.
Dad-of-three Saj, who moved here from Pakistan 19 years ago, offered advice this week to Ballinamore natives now staging their own welcome for the seven families moving into the village – 27 refugees instead of the proposed 130.
The eclectic array of Asian and Eastern European shops – sandwiched between small-town staples such as Supervalu, eight pubs and boarded-up buildings in the town’s two intersecting main streets – reflect a multi-culturalism most unique in rural Ireland.
When Pakistani businessman Sher Mohammed Rafique opened a meat plant here in the 1980s, he hired many halal-trained butchers.
When the plant closed in 2008, many stayed on. There was also a direct provision centre here and when it closed a decade ago, many former residents stayed on.
Saj says whether people arrive at a reception centre like the Abbeyfield, where guests have the right to remain in Ireland, or a direct provision centre, where asylum seekers are waiting for the State to decide, a friendly welcome is vital.
“If your family has died and you’re seeking safety and shelter and you arrive in a strange country and see people protesting that really hurts,” says Saj.
“But at the same time I agree we need to fight the terrible system of direct provision – let’s not confuse the two.”
Saj’s story is a shining testimony to how migrant integration can transform communities for the better.
As well as being chairman of the Tidy Towns Committee, he founded and captained Ballaghaderreen Cricket Club – eight-time Connacht champions – helped set up the Men’s Shed and volunteers with Foroige.
Earlier this year he ran for Roscommon County Council although didn’t win a seat.
“One woman asked me whether I wanted to stone people in the town and introduce Sharia – another man started shouting,” remembers Saj of canvassing on the doorsteps.
“But 95 percent of the people were nice and friendly and invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. Five percent were bad so it’s not fair to say “Saj is getting racism” like what the newspapers write in headlines.
"People in 37 polling stations an hour’s drive away voted for me. That’s a good story – I always focus on the positive.”
Carol Wilson – another ‘welcomer’ – is also drinking tea in Saj’s.
“Yes, people were worried about schools and GPs and we understand that and yes some nasty people put about awful leaflets about terrorists but they were so ghastly it had the reverse effect on people here.”
Mary Gallagher, who ran Gallagher's drapery here for 40 years, set the tone with comments that went viral and won her a People of the Year Award: “If somebody is driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?” she implored.
Another shopkeeper said: “The Irish go all over the world and didn’t they meet hardness where they went too.
She continues: “I can understand protests in Achill and Ballinamore as it’s not fair on these kids who are very bright need to be near colleges and libraries .
“They’re young and need to get going. All our kids are gone – they’re in Limerick, Galway and Sligo. There’s nothing here for them. The west of Ireland is closing down. There is one centre – Dublin. We’ve a generation lost.”
Miriam Arshad, 22, confirms this. Miriam stayed in town and last year opened her own halal store, where her dad Arshad works for her.
She’d like to move to a city such as Galway to study business at college when her two children reach school age.
“Most of my generation are gone off studying or for jobs – my mother helps me now and it would be a big step leaving – I love the family business.”
Like many Pakistanis here, Miriam’s dad came to work at Halal Meats and when that shut he took over as manager of Supervalu – which might just boast the largest chili and spice selection in the west – and where Miriam also worked while at St Nathy’s College.
"When we started it was quiet but since the Syrians came it’s been really busy here in the shop,” says Miriam, offering me a cup of tea.
Andrew Durkin, owner of Durkins pub, does his best to sell GAA to the local Syrians – also suffering as a result of the ‘lost generation’ – but they much prefer soccer.
But he’s proud as punch of Shairoze Akram – who made history as the first Pakistan-born player to win an All-Ireland title with Mayo – who started out as an 11-year-old with Andrew.
Seamus O’Grady, meanwhile, is proud of punch of his U18 soccer team who won the Sevens Tournament in Shiven recently, on a team that included two Syrians, Abdullah Rahman and Murnham Alhosain.
Saj has a simple answer to the secret of a good welcome: ‘All they want is love, a smile. I was never a refugee but I remember everyone who smiled at me when I came here 18 years ago. No more than a smile but it will stay with me all my life.”