A long-serving parish priest of the Moyross area of Limerick has begun a new ministry in South Sudan.
While Fr Tony O’Riordan has seen disadvantage up close during his time in Ireland, he says he is “overwhelmed” by the scale of the human suffering in his new parish.
The west Cork priest has taken up the role of project director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, in Maban county, home to one of the world’s most isolated refugee camps .
The location has become a sprawling tent city for 150,000 refugees and is a “maze of misery and toil”, Fr O’Riordan says.
Having already fled conflict in the Blue Nile state, the refugees face a daily battle against hunger and disease.
Despite the “weight of all that seeks to destroy life here”, Fr O’Riordan says he is still greeted by refugees “with smiles and a welcome”.
He sees “similarities” in the strength of the refugees with the strength of the people of Moyross, who faced an epidemic of violence and decades of deprivation.
Fr O’Riordan has had good preparation for the many challenges in Maban. On a recent mission to the Middle East, he closely observed how education is used as a tool to reduce trauma and stress on young victims of war.
During his six-year ministry in Moyross, he helped many who were in the reaches of local drug gangs to find a path to employment and way to a better life.
The Limerick estate is undergoing a slow renewal, having been tarnished by a wave of gangland crime.
Fr O’Riordan says he believes that even the most damaged communities that experience extreme levels of trauma, can be helped through education.
Education is key
In between Moyross and Maban, O’Riordan worked at the Jesuits regional office in Beirut, helping the response to refugees coming from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon, where “a team of psychologists are running social and mental health programmes to help people deal with trauma and loss, and to rebuild their lives”.
He hopes he can do something similar in Maban where he is charged with building schools for thousands of children.
“The primary effort of the Jesuits is education. Almost the day [refugees] arrive in a camp, particularly for kids, education reduces their trauma significantly.”
“If their parents can say to them, you might have left your home, but your schooling continues, it brings back to them a sense of structure and a sense of normality.”
Similar efforts being used in both poor, white and aboriginal towns, in Australia and the Northern Territory, remind Fr O’Riordan “very much what we were trying to do in Moyross”.
“In parts of the community, children were being affected by poverty which resulted in challenging behaviour, and their school was trying to cope and trying to break the cycle.”
Moyross school principal Tiernan O’Neill described Fr O’Riordan as a “visionary” who has helped the school implement various therapy tools for pupils, including “mindfulness and therapeutic interventions”, as well as “equine therapy”.
“Moyross is an amazing community and some of our pupils’ parents may have grown up in adversity, and we want to make sure we promote a resilience in the children which helps prevent them from experiencing the same issues,” Mr O’Neill adds.
“Moyross’s loss is definitely Maban’s gain,” he says.
Fr O’Riordan believes Ireland should be taking in more refugees or, at least accepting them at a faster rate.
“I think immigration is fantastic,” he says. “I know people are fearful of it…but I think we need to be very aware of the concerns of people who are either racist, or of those who are in need and are preyed upon by others who drum up racism and a scapegoating of migrants.
“We are a nation of migrants; we are the original boat people.”
He says Ireland has the capability to solve its own homeless crisis, but he sees “no political will” to do so. Blaming migrants for the housing crisis is “wrong”, he adds.
“Responding to people fleeing persecution is a solemn international obligation on us… and when there’s pressure on housing, which there is in this country, you hear the argument that, ‘well, it’s the migrants [fault]’, but it’s not, it’s a failure of housing policy.”