Power of sport and community merge to help Ukrainian refugees in Roscommon

‘We are very thankful to be here . . . we feel like we are in the right place’

Gima Olifir was hours away from catching a flight home to Kyiv on February 24th, the day the Russian invasion began.

Boarding in Sri Lanka – where he had been on holiday – was cancelled when the news broke. He went to Poland instead, then Germany, and now he is in Roscommon.

Twaliv Salim, originally from Tanzania, had been living in Ukraine for seven years. A final-year medical student in Sumy, his last two weeks were in a city under siege. The Red Cross and United Nations helped him escape to Hungary and onwards to Ireland.

Under martial law in Ukraine, men of conscription age (18 to 60) are not permitted to leave the country if they are citizens. In Olifir’s case, being on holidays when the war broke out meant he did not need to return to Ukraine, while Salim was studying in Ukraine and not a citizen.

Fast forward a few weeks and they are at Creggs rugby club in Co Galway, 22 of a group of more than 60 housed in the former Cuisle Holiday Centre at Donamon near Roscommon town. They are taking part in some tag rugby before watching the men's senior team play a visiting side from Chicago.

They’re told the bus is leaving at 9pm, and so with the match still not over they rush back to the meeting point well in advance. “Don’t worry lads,” local club man Niall Quinn tells them. “There’s no rush, hang around. The bus won’t leave without any of ye.”

Things are very different here.

"Oh my God, they are amazing; the Irish people are very good, they are very helpful," Salim tells The Irish Times. "To be honest we are very thankful to be here and we have been welcomed and we feel like we are in the right place. The treatment they give us is amazing. Everyone is taking good care of us. We don't know how to repay this. It's more than enough, more than we thought we could get from anywhere.

“At the moment when you are leaving Ukraine it’s just to get out first. You can’t fly from Ukraine so we went to Hungary, which is the near border so from there we checked and I got some instincts – and I said let me try Ireland because I have heard of a good reputation about this country. The people are good and the society is nice and they will help us and that’s why I’m here . . . Right now I’m at a rugby match as if nothing was happening so it’s amazing being here.”

‘Community spirit’

As well as the match at Creggs, Connacht Rugby development officer Michael Glennon has also been calling out to Cuisle to teach some of the Ukrainian refugees the skills of rugby.

"There's no real pattern or structure to it, but Michael Glennon is helping out with them and doing drills with them and getting them into the game of rugby as much as possible," explains Adrian Leddy who is a Creggs RFC and IRFU executive committee member. "They enjoy it and are getting outdoors and getting involved and it's a new game to them. The community is very involved, it shows the community spirit that's out there and what people can do by working together and supporting people.

“There’s many different ways of supporting – there’s people delivering things, meeting them, or even sitting down playing a games of cards and draughts. We presented them with rugby balls and boots and gear. We put a pool table into the place.

“It’s an ideal building for the situation – very well laid out, as good or better than most hotels. But there’s nothing else around Donamon for them to do, so yeah, we’re trying to make it as good on site as possible.”

Leddy explains there’s “a big drive” to get the refugees back to work or study, or for them to be able to draw social benefit.

Olifir (32), is keen to network and wants to get back into business and get working. “I came to Ireland because of the English language and it’s a good move for me. The community has been good and it’s easier to meet people here and network than in Germany.” His parents are still in Kyiv.

Recalling the Russian invasion, Salim (25) says, “People were afraid and angry at the same time. Everyone thought this thing wouldn’t go that far but when it did we were so afraid as we could see other cities bombed down – and ourselves we could hear them bomb noises and see the air strikes.”

Escape

On March 8th, the Red Cross – with some UN assistance – helped him escape on a bus through a green corridor to Hungary. “Most of my friends I was playing football with and my neighbours, people I studied with and friends are joining the forces. Most of them have joined the army and they are actually fighting.

“My friends I’m staying with right now in Roscommon, they have neighbours and friends who have died. I haven’t had any deaths yet on my side but it’s very sad.”

Going to Gaelic football and rugby matches and training since his arrival has been good for him. "It helps a lot. When I came here it was my first time hearing about Gaelic football and somebody told me you use both hands and feet so I thought maybe this could be an easy one – but I checked on YouTube and I came to love it. It's not that easy, it's actually a lot more complex than football.

“Everyone I talk to here, the spirits are high and everyone I meet is like, ‘Wow these Irish people are amazing and we needed this’. And I haven’t seen anyone have a challenge they didn’t get help with. Because they are open with us and they say if you need anything come to us and we are here and ready to help, so we give them the information and they provide very good care for us.”

Learning the skills of rugby may seem inconsequential in the greater scheme of the tragedy of war but the power of sport and the power of community is not to be underestimated. The bus left when the match was over, but not straight away and certainly not at 9pm. The chats were had, and everyone was on board and looked after.

For a few hours anyway, a much-needed distraction. The locals are already planning what they can do next.

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