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‘Both sides have right’: Asylum seekers living in Roscrea share objectors’ concerns on consultation

The lived experience of those newly arrived in the Tipperary town is generally very positive with a warm welcome felt

Asylum seekers Terrence Sibanda, Sunday Kenneth Aigbe and Adam Ali speak to community worker Margo O'Donnell-Roche in the Roscrea offices of North Tipperary Development Company, a body that assists new arrivals to the town. Photograph: Barry Roche

The images went viral on social media and, within hours, Roscrea was being condemned as a repository of racism as people protesting against the establishment of a new asylum-seeker centre in the town were seen scuffling with gardaí escorting terrified women and children into the Racket Hall hotel.

While the disturbing images made headline news, the experience of some asylum seekers who have lived in Roscrea for almost five years is very much at odds with the depiction of the town as unwelcoming and hostile to those seeking sanctuary from oppression and discrimination.

Margo O’Donnell-Roche, a community worker with the North Tipperary Development Company (NTDC), has been working with asylum seekers in Roscrea since 2019 and more recently with more than 300 Ukrainian refugees. She believes locals have been supportive, highlighting their setting up of the Roscrea Welcome Group.

“The group is made up of people from different churches, business and community and their focus is to support refugees and asylum seekers in Roscrea, advocate for them. They connect with them through myself. For example, they run a coffee morning for them every Wednesday.”

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One of the first arrivals, Adam Ali (43), a slender man with a cheerful disposition despite having to flee his war-torn home country of Somalia, recalls that when he first arrived in Roscrea in 2019, staying in emergency accommodation in town, he and some of his fellow Africans were a curiosity to children.

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“I remember when we would walk down the street, the parents were normal, they didn’t really look at us but the kids were looking at us all the time. I suppose that it was the first time that the kids had seen black people. It was a new experience and the moms and dads ended up laughing at the kids.”

Ali says there were issues initially with the menus in the emergency accommodation where they were staying but the owners listened to their requests and the food was changed and the experience has by and large been very positive.

“People are nice, they salute me on the street. I have only had one bad experience and that man was old and drunk… I am a single man here on my own but I don’t get any sense of hostility but then they know me because I’ve been here for a long time, and I am friendly and have the language.”

A Garda van passes protesters at the Racket Hall Hotel in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, who are demonstrating over plans to house asylum seeker family applicants. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Ali fondly describes going to the Central Bar nightclub in Roscrea on Saturday nights. “I’m black so I like music and dancing but when I go to the pub people buy me drink and I say ‘Guys, I don’t drink’ and I end up with four drinks on the table.”

Currently participating in a health studies adult education course in the local secondary school, Ali, who used to volunteer with Roscrea Tidy Towns Group, has already worked in a local nursing home on placement and hopes to get a job there when he finishes the course.

Terrence Sibanda from Zimbabwe is already working with the NTDC and, like Ali, he too has had little experience of racism since he arrived in the town after fleeing South Africa where he had been studying and working.

“To be honest, a lot of people seeking asylum come to Ireland because they see it as the safest option – there is peace here. I left South Africa because of the xenophobia there – if you are not South African, they will beat you up, there’ll be physical violence or like murders and stuff.”

Sibanda reveals he has only experienced two incidents of racism since he arrived in Roscrea in 2019. Now dating a local girl from nearby Rathdowney in Co Laois, he feels very much part of the community as he chats with Ali and another African exile, Sunday Kenneth Aigbe.

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“I had one or two experiences of racism, but I just pushed it away because it was just words at that point. After people got to know me, everything was alright. I’m working now with NTDC and it’s quite lovely and everybody is quite nice and it’s good to give something back to the community.”

Unlike Ali and Sibanda who are living in privately owned rented accommodation in the centre of Roscrea, Aigbe, who left a wife and three children behind when he fled Edo State in Nigeria, lives in Corville House, a direct provision centre on the grounds of Sean Ross Abbey outside the town.

He arrived in Roscrea in September after spending just over a month in Citywest in Dublin. While he is still careful about where he goes in Roscrea, he too is beginning to feel more at home, having just spent last Sunday walking with the Roscrea Ramblers in the nearby Slieve Bloom mountains.

He admits, however, he was worried when he learned about the scuffles at Racket Hall. “Everybody was apprehensive, and we thought that they might come over – I stayed up until 2am, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know if these people would be coming so I was like ‘Let me be prepared to escape’.

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“I asked myself ‘Why would that be?’ and the first thing that came to me was ‘Was it because of a communication gap?’ If you are bringing people in, I would expect the authorities to meet first with the local community and tell them what is happening so that they can expect some new people.”

Both Ali and Sibanda are also, perhaps surprisingly, understanding of those protesting outside Racket Hall with Sibanda revealing that he went down to the hotel on Thursday, when the protest started, to hear what people were saying.

“I went down and listened to Cllr Shane Lee and others speaking. I did my work placement in Racket Hall and I know people working there so I knew the strains that they are under in terms of housing and health services so I see their argument about the town’s capacity to cater for more people.”

Protesters at the Racket Hall hotel: The experience of some asylum seekers who have lived in Roscrea for almost five years is at odds with the depiction of the town as unwelcoming and hostile. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Ali is equally sympathetic. “Both sides have right. To be fair to the protesters, it’s the only hotel left in this area, and they need it but those coming in are not single men but families and this town is nice for families, and they have no say where they are being sent. So it’s not their fault.”

O’Donnell-Roche offers another interesting observation which goes against the idea that those huddled around blazing braziers maintaining a protest vigil outside Racket Hall want no truck with refugees in their town.

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“In my work in Roscrea, I work with resident groups, and I know many of those protesting. They are good community people and often when I need something for my work with asylum seekers, say materials for arts and craft classes, I send out a text and they are the people who help out.

“They are not unwelcoming, but I can understand their frustration over both the loss of the hotel and the lack of communication – they are the big issues. People didn’t know that the Ukrainian refugees were coming to the convent, and it was the same with Racket Hall and that is hugely disrespectful.”

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