English teacher Kseniia Maiboroda, who fled a village near Kyiv shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, could not believe her eyes as she sat in Westport’s Intreo centre last April helping one of the first groups of refugees to arrive from the country to process documents.
“It was like a scene from a movie,” she says. “Out of the crowd appeared the Georgian woman who ran a restaurant in the flat complex where my husband Oleh and I regularly bought lunches. We cried together, it was such a moment.”
Unsurprising, since it was both family’s second time to flee from wars: in Kseniia’s case from east Ukraine in 2014, and in Bella Gablaia’s from Abkhazia, a disputed territory in northeast Georgia.
Soon after they met, Kseniia, her mother-in-law, niece Kira (9), son Nestor (5) and Gablaia, along with her two daughters and granddaughter, moved into a house together that had been pledged by a local.
Kira was the first Ukrainian to attend the town’s biggest primary school, Scoil Phádraig. Some of the teachers cried on her first day as she was given a gift of a soft toy. Nestor did not start until September and is now in a class with five other Ukrainians.
Sharon Brady, the school’s deputy principal, says the children are integrating well but declines to confirm how many are attending the school, as the numbers are changing daily. “Our school is very rich in diversity and the whole school community has really welcomed the Ukrainian children,” she says.
From a small group of 20 Ukrainians who arrived at dawn on Easter Sunday to Westport’s quay community centre, to a number that is now exceeding 650 and forecast to reach 1,000 by Christmas, the challenges for the Co Mayo town are complex.
As well as a large number of privately pledged houses and apartments, one of the town’s nine hotels, Hotel Westport, has just welcomed about 350 refugees directly from Ukraine.
Its chief executive, Barry O’Connor, was unavailable to comment but said in a recent statement: “Apart from providing much-needed accommodation, we hope that we can give peace and hope to children and families fleeing the terrible war in Ukraine.”
The contract is for six months but locals believe it will run for longer.
Four guesthouses and a hostel in the nearby village of Murrisk have also closed their doors to tourists and look set to host refugees for the foreseeable future. By many accounts, the tourist town has now reached saturation point.
When the war started in late February, bric-a-brac shop-owner Joe Moran sold Ukrainian flags and donated all the profits to the Irish Red Cross.
“I fully understand the necessity for us to support the Ukrainian refugees,” he says. “We all have to make sacrifices but I do feel Westport has reached saturation point. I think the town has lost as much of its bed-base as it can afford. If more [accommodation providers] close we will destroy the tourism product we have worked so hard to develop.”
Moran is not concerned about the impact on business this winter, but wonders what will happen next summer. “I think it would be wrong to move them on.”
Pat Aylward, the owner of Boffin Lodge guesthouse, briefly considered closing his doors to host Ukrainian refugees.
“As a family, we wanted to be supportive but the key question was, when ‘do you get off the train’; in other words, when would we say: ‘Okay that is enough’,” he says.
“I’ve just had my busiest summer and autumn since I opened in 1998 and that is partly because of the reduction in beds in the town.”
He argues that the reason for this is more complex than the arrival of the refugees.
“The age profile of guesthouse owners is older and some of them chose not to reopen after Covid or decided to restrict their opening hours,” he says.
Notwithstanding that, Aylward says the reduced bed capacity in the town may ultimately have an impact, particularly on smaller businesses.
“Nobody makes money from November to February but we try to lose as little as possible and hold on to staff for the summer season. Busy Saturdays — in the cafes, restaurants and pubs also — often pay for overheads for the rest of the week,” he says.
Fine Gael councillor Peter Flynn argues that an almost 20 per cent increase in a small town’s population in a matter of months is not sustainable.
“We have a winter population of around 6,500 and in normal circumstances it would take 10 years to develop the infrastructure and facilities to cater for such an increase. We already had a housing crisis here for both locals and the vast numbers of tourists who visit the town,” he says.
Flynn says he is fully behind the effort to support Ukrainian people and speaks highly of Westport’s strong volunteerism ethic.
Westport Welcomes Ukraine is now at the forefront of that effort, says Leanne Barrett, project co-ordinator at the town’s family resource centre.
“The strong ethos of community in Westport has really shown itself with around 45 people volunteering with Westport Welcomes Ukraine,” she says. “This group has been on the ground, meeting basic needs and being a support, for the past six months. Each volunteer is allocated a congregated setting to support: putting out calls for baby formula to bikes, nappies, jackets, shoes and all-important rain gear.”
She says the language barrier has been a fundamental problem in providing psychological support, but the centre has been able “to offer places for children on our play therapy service”.
“All services and resources are extremely stretched. The allocation of GP services is a slow process and has caused stress for people with medical issues. For example, a month ago we were told that about 150 of 300 refugees had been allocated a GP,” Barrett says.
“Basically, because of the volume of people arriving, the pressure on services, the lack of easy communication between different agencies and the complexities of their needs, the situation has proven challenging. The spirit of community in the town shines through the challenges and humanity, decency and care prevail.”