It takes a village: Carlow residents make a welcoming home for Ukrainians

Over 110 refugees have arrived at Ballon’s 70-bed rest centre since start of April

It takes a village. And a state-of-the-art community hall; tireless volunteers; and everything from donated money to shoes, prams, clothes and home-baked scones and cakes.

The small village of Ballon in Carlow has been a temporary home to more than 110 Ukrainian refugees who have been arriving at its 70-bed rest centre since the beginning of April.

Viktoria Kogutenko (41) arrived with her 10-year-old son Andrii and her 15-year-old daughter Kattya, after a long journey from the the Moldovan border in February where she and her husband Eivgen said goodbye.

"We left Ukraine on the 23rd of February when we heard the first bomb. My husband drove us to the border. It was very panicked and we drove very fast and there was huge traffic. A lot of cars drove through the red lights. We lived near the capital and usually it takes maybe five hours but that morning we drove maybe 14 hours because there were a lot of cars.

“We were sad and only near the border I started to understand that we’d continue our trip without him. He said he should stay and help.”

Kogutenko and her children travelled through Moldova, Romania and Slovakia, before stopping to rest in Poland and finally travelling to Ireland. A teacher, she is now volunteering at a school, helping to translate classes for Ukrainian children, and soon hopes to find a job at a school.

“We’ve met only amazing people. I want to say thank you to all Irish people, the Government and the people we meet.”

Engineers, baristas, students, teachers, nurses, builders, data analysts and welders have been among the refugee population staying at Ballon rest centre over the last few weeks. Though they are keen to start work, many are also exhausted from the physical and mental toll of what they’ve been through.

"The level of exhaustion when they arrive," said Annette Fox, CEO of Carlow County Development Partnership. "They've travelled so long. It would break your heart when you see the infants and older people in particular.

“There’s great concern about the families back home as well. There isn’t a family there who hasn’t had to leave a family member behind.”

Donations have been pouring in to Ballon’s thrift shop, Siopa Glas, the community centre and Ballon Business and Training Services to such an extent that volunteers have been sorting goods into pop-up “shops” where refugees can browse and take what they need.

‘Big-hearted village’

Fox said: “Shoes, coats, clothes, toiletries and night wear were the main things. In camp beds, there is no privacy, so for getting ready for bed, they wanted jim jams and socks and things for modesty.

“They arrive literally with what they’re standing up in. Many of them, they have been walking so many days with shoes so they were the first thing on the list. By the time they had walked and stood for sometimes two weeks, the shoes were fairly shabby, and some children had canvas shoes, so shoes were absolutely a priority.”

Marina de Costa, who works for Carlow County Development Partnership, said: “Whatever we requested, it just poured in. If we asked for nappies, we got them. Every day we either got scones or cakes – all baked by our local people, with a little note to say ‘Welcome, I hope you have a lovely stay in Ballon’.”

“I think this is our small little village of Ballon with a big, big heart.”

Music sessions, a children's Easter camp, a trip to Altamont Gardens and the cinema have been organised by the community and volunteers. Ballon Business and Training Services has been printing CVs, character references, information sheets and signs with Ukrainian translations. In the coming weeks, a local hairdresser will offer her services, and English classes, cookery classes and art classes will also be offered to the refugees.

Fadi Almasri, who runs Ballon Pharmacy, was one of the first Syrian refugees to be resettled in Ireland under a programme operated by the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Irish Government. Over the last few weeks he has been helping the refugees with their prescription and medical needs, and he shared with them his own experiences of coming to Ireland for the first time nine years ago.

“In a time like this, you just escape with your kids and your family. In their situation the man can’t leave the country, so they always have a father, a brother, a husband stuck behind, so that’s the worry.

“I met four or five families that had a few issues, and I spoke with them about Ballon and Ireland, and that I was in the same position as they were and where I am now, and there is hope, because I know the first week is the worst when you arrive at a new place.”

He added: “I told them I came from the same situation exactly, from a war zone, I know how you’re feeling now, but you are now safe. The most important thing is the people are welcoming in Ireland and you have a future here. Hopefully if you have a family back home they will be safe and you will see them. Try to work with where you are now and give the future for your kids now.

“There are loads of opportunities for work, the schools are very good. Wherever you go in Ireland, you will get help. The first barrier is to learn English and try to do that.”

Almasri's wider family are still based in Syria and are still fleeing targeted violence.

“In Syria, we woke up one morning to find a whole village or a whole city is gone. Everything is from the airplanes. You just escape and you don’t look behind you because of the airplane that’s coming in 10 minutes. My grandmother and uncles are still there and they’re moving from area to area and that’s after nine years of war.”

Mariia Dokhniak (20) was studying international economic relations at her university in Kharkiv when Russia invaded Ukraine. "When I left I just packed two backpacks with snacks and food and my laptop because I knew I had to study.

‘I like to be alone’

“When I came to Dublin, I was in the centre where they tried to figure out where to send people. I slept for two hours at most, so when I came to Ballon, I just went to sleep and I didn’t even change my clothes.”

But soon, after spending some time at the rest centre, she made new friends.

“We became friends here in Ballon, I didn’t expect that at all. I like to be alone and I thought I would find it hard to be open to people. I thought I’d be the person in the corner doing my own stuff, but I got close to people I barely knew. That’s the last thing I expected.”

Next month, she will graduate from her university, which has now been badly damaged by bombs, and she will start her job search in Ireland. Carlow County Council works to find more permanent accommodation for the refugees coming to Ballon rest centre, and Kogutenko and her children have now moved to live in a home in Baltinglass, while Dokhniak is in a guesthouse in Carlow town.

Appeals for donated items and volunteer hours are evolving as the movement of people continues out of temporary accommodation.

“There are quite a few teenagers,” Fox said, “and they’re used to biking around and we’re looking at setting up a programme where even if bikes are second-hand they can be repaired and used.

“Even if someone has a couple of hours to have a cup of coffee with someone or to go for a walk and a chat. Bearing in mind again, some are women and children, just even to meet up for a walk with a baby in a buggy. The loneliness is there because they’re missing a loved one.”

Siopa Glas has appealed for suitcases for refugees to store their items and take them with them.

As the refugees move on, the friendships that have been formed in Ballon Community Centre leave their mark.

Gerry Maher, one of the committee members of the community centre, said: "They're amazing people, what they've been through, and you form a personal relationship with every one of them.

“We know them like family, they’re lovely people. It’s a big effort and everyone has accepted them wholeheartedly into the village and the wider community.”

De Costa added: “We had no template to follow. We didn’t know how it was going to work. It was a matter of diving in and doing whatever was needed when they arrived.”