Safe havens


REFUGEES:On Monday, the United Nations Refugee Agency celebrates World Refugee Day, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of refugees. An exhibition opening this week in Dublin tells the personal stories of some of the thousands of refugees who have fled their homes over six decades to make new lives in Ireland. JAMIE SMYTHSocial Affairs Correspondent profiles some of those people

FROM THE OUTSIDE, Patrick Buni (19) is like any teenager. He will sit his Leaving Certificate next year and dreams of doing well and getting a satisfying job. But this is no ordinary teenager. Born in a village in southern Sudan, he was forced to flee to Uganda when war devastated his region.

“I am told that my mother got killed when I was young . . . My dad left us behind when he joined the Sudanese Liberation Army,” he says.

Buni and his four cousins lived with his uncle Charles in Uganda in a refugee camp, where they faced attacks from rebel groups. In 2004, one of his uncles was killed and his body was mutilated, prompting the uncle looking after Patrick to apply to the United Nations refugee agency for protection.

Four years later Buni, along with his uncle and cousins, arrived in Ireland to start a new life. They are among the almost 5,000 refugees admitted to Ireland under government programmes dating back to 1956.

Most have been admitted following requests from the UN refugee agency to deal with specific crises, such as the Hungarian revolution in 1956 or the coup d’etat by Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. Last month Ireland said it would take in 24 refugees from Libya.

“Over these decades, through good times and bad, Ireland remained a place of safety and safe haven for people fleeing their homes in fear for their lives,” says Sophie Magennis, head of the UN refugee agency’s Irish office.

Since they have already been designated refugees by the UN, programme refugees do not face the difficulties asylum seekers endure when they arrive in Ireland to claim protection, such as very low refugee recognition rates, long stays in direct provision centres, and meagre social-welfare payments. They are automatically entitled to permanent resettlement and a programme to help them integrate into Irish life. A language and training programme is put in place for 20 hours per week for up to a year.

But on the 60th anniversary of the UN refugee convention, which committed states to provide protection to people fleeing well-founded fears of persecution, the UN estimates at least 800,000 people need resettlement. For every 100 refugees in need of resettlement, only 10 are resettled each year.

Patrick Buni’s difficult experiences mean he is eager to give something back. He is a member of the Kilkenny Youth Forum and he speaks on behalf of other young people in the area on issues such as transport, education, sport and mental health. “I believe that I have a great opportunity here. I will become educated, work and plan to help people here and in Africa,” he says.


Olga Murphy (72) fled to Ireland when Soviet forces crushed the pro-democracy revolution in Hungary in 1956. Murphy lives in Moyross, Limerick

“I remember tramping through thick mud in the middle of the night to get to Knocklisheen army camp, close to Limerick city. They gave us old, grey army blankets on that first night. It was a tough start to our new life. Ireland was poor in the 1950s and I remember some of us were a little disappointed at first. But we were free.

“People had greeted us with heroes’ welcomes at every train station on our trip from Vienna to Ostende in Belgium, then on to England and finally to Ireland. They thought Hungary was the revolution that would sweep away the Iron Curtain.

“When the revolution began in Hungary I’d just enrolled in university but I never got to attend. I became involved in the protests and became a well-known activist in my neighbourhood. The Soviets began to round people up and I had to flee. I was 17 years old when I left my mother and father behind in Hungary.

“There were 500 Hungarians living in wooden huts at the camp. We found Irish food bland and tasteless. Hungarians are used to spicier food with hot chilli peppers. When I was given tea with milk in it for the first time I remember nearly being sick. But I’m used to it now and enjoy a cuppa.

“When we finally ventured out of the army camp about two weeks after we arrived I remember a crowd gathering at a shop in Moyross to look at us. They started talking to us but we couldn’t understand a word of English. The crowd followed us half way around Limerick city that day.

“After a few years living at the camp most Hungarians moved to the US, Britain or Canada. But I stayed and the Red Cross organised a flat for me in Limerick.

“I joined the Krups company in Limerick, where I worked for 19 years. In 1958 I went to a dance where I met my husband, who was originally from Cork. We had two sons together John and Frank.

The hardest thing about being a refugee for me was being separated from my family. My mother was finally able to visit me for the first time in 1964.

“I remember visiting Hungary for the first time in the late 1970s. When I arrived I looked out the window of the plane at the airport and saw lots police men. I just wanted the plane to take off again. It was a strange feeling because I was used to freedom.

“I love Limerick and I love the people. I’d never move from here.”


Nguyen Mai was two years old when her parents fled Vietnam in 1979. She recently returned to live in Dublin after completing a degree in neuroscience in Britain

“My dad was an army officer in South Vietnam when Saigon fell and the communists took over. Under communist rule, living conditions were very difficult. Food rationing was introduced and my family were under surveillance by the Vietcong. My parents had no choice but to flee to make a better life for their family.

“We made three attempts to leave Vietnam. Two of those attempts were made under stormy conditions, the first one ending in tragedy for some of the boat people. Six boats contained 200 people on each, four capsized and only two boats made it back to Vietnamese shores. Luckily for my family, we were on one of those two boats and eventually our third attempt was a successful one.

“We sailed for four days before arriving at Chi Ma Wan, which was a camp where thousands of Vietnamese boat people were accommodated near Hong Kong. I was sick at the time and my parents opted to go to Ireland, which was accepting Vietnamese refugees at the time, rather than waiting to see if we could get into the US.

“When we arrived in Ireland we were all greeted by the late Brian Lenihan senior. About 50 Vietnamese families were placed in Blanchardstown Hospital for six months before they were housed by the government.

“My first memories of Ireland are from my playschool. It was here that I noticed I was a bit different from the other children. I was treated like a novelty for a while as I think everyone was intrigued by their Vietnamese classmate.

“I haven’t really had any negative experiences due to my Vietnamese ethnicity since arriving in Ireland. Maybe this is because we arrived before there were many other foreigners here or maybe it is because I have developed a thick Irish accent.

“My parents found it very difficult to adjust to their new life in Ireland at the beginning. They couldn’t speak English and didn’t understand Irish culture. In those early years, the nuns at the local convent used to pop in to talk to us and give us some help. My parents learned English and are now much happier living in Ireland.

“I visited Vietnam in the 1990s when I was 17 or 18 years old. It was quite strange meeting blood relatives for the first time who were relative strangers to me.

“I was brought up with two cultures, the Vietnamese culture and the Irish culture. We spoke Vietnamese in the home and English at school. But I feel completely Irish because I have lived here for so long now.

“At times, though, I do feel there is a conflict inside over my identity.”


Memo and Alvaro Avarena fled the Pinochet regime in Chile with their family in 1974. Alvaro, who works for an airline, and Memo, who is a chef, live close to Dublin. They are considering returning to Chile with their families

“We arrived on a cold, rainy day at the old terminal building in Dublin airport. We were placed temporarily in a large manor house near Clondalkin with 11 other Chilean families and families from Northern Ireland, who had fled the Troubles.

“Most of the Chilean families were then sent on to Shannon, which was a relatively new town that had already taken in some Chilean families fleeing Pinochet.

“We were aged eight and 12 years at the time and it was a big adventure. But it was pretty tough, particularly for our parents. Some people in Shannon didn’t like their new Chilean neighbours, who couldn’t speak English, and there was some tension. But we found a common language, which was football. Things improved a lot after that.

“My father was a trade-union activist at the sugar factory in Linares and a member of the Communist party in Chile. When Pinochet took over in the 1973 coup, he was forced to go on the run in the mountains. The army used to come and ransack our house regularly looking for him. We moved out but our elder brother and my mother stayed in the family home. We didn’t know if our father was alive or dead.

“Then one day he came back, very thin and with a beard. He managed to organise our escape with the help of the United Nations. And one of the few possessions we were able to take with us to Ireland was a small wooden boat, which he had whittled out of a branch when he was on the run in the mountains.

“Up until the very last minute we were scheduled to go to Mexico. But on the last day of our stay in Chile we found ourselves going to Ireland. We didn’t know anything about the country, except what we had seen on the news about the Troubles.

“Ireland was poor in the 1970s and my dad was forced to emigrate for a while to England to find work. He returned and we moved to Dublin. My mother and father missed Chile a lot but could not return until a black list of activists was lifted. They eventually returned home in 1990 after almost 20 years in exile.

“Chileans are more outgoing than Irish people, maybe because Ireland is a colder country. We love dancing and going out. We think we’ll both be moving back to Chile in a few years time. Our father has a tourism business in Chile and maybe there will be opportunities there.”