Have you ever had lunch with some refugees? Have you sat across the table and watched them eat? Did you notice the fear in their eyes and did you hear the gratitude in their voice? When I was nine-years-old, two families came to our house. My mother cooked for them in the way she would for special guests. She used the best china and put on a three-course spread. She loved every moment of it. If they had arrived a month earlier, however, it might not have been possible to welcome them in the way she did.
At that point we were living in a cold rented house. We had no electricity and water had to be boiled in saucepans to heat a bath. That’s the way it was until I was nine and there was little need to bring out the Royal Albert. It was being kept for a special occasion but as yet none had arisen. Now we were in the new house. A small country bungalow. The refugees were our first guests and they crowded around our kitchen table. We entertained two mums and seven children, some younger than me.
They were tired and hungry. They had the slept the night before in the community hall near the school and the GAA grounds. Those mums heaped thanks on the locals and gave us harrowing detail on how quickly they had to leave West Belfast. It sounded like a script from a film. Over 30 families were staying nearby while preparations were made to provide accommodation further south in Louth and Meath. Some had lost everything, their homes and their belongings, but they never lost their spirit.
We saw those visitors as dignified and determined but they could not have survived without the help the community was giving them. Some only had the clothes they left the city in. Very few had any money and most of them apologised for asking for help. Proud people, victims of what was happening around them. My parents and neighbours knew it could have been any of us. We were the lucky ones because of a position on the map.
That’s the way it is in the world. When war and violence tears through a community, people will be displaced. Sometimes they are on the move with very little prior warning. Hot on the heels of the Syrian crisis we have the heartbreak of Afghanistan. The refugees are in a dire situation and these proud, intelligent and loving people are forced to reach out and ask for a helping hand.
Some of us will ignore the plea and some of us will do everything we can to help. Some who would like to help will find excuses not to. Others will paint a picture of how charity should begin at home.
Callers to the radio show tell me how their sons and daughters can’t get on the housing list so we should ignore the Afghans and the Syrians. They obviously haven’t had a chance to have lunch with a refugee. They haven’t seen the fear in their eyes or heard the gratitude in their voices. I can only imagine how deep that fear is when you are running from the Taliban.
Many local people have been generous this week. Volunteers are setting the pace and, as usual, many politicians are checking which way the wind is blowing while others are leading from the front.
Wouldn’t it be great if in years to come some people born in Kabul having enjoyed life in Belfast had good reason to seek out a community and say thank you for how they were treated in 2021.
Many who sought comfort in community halls and homes across Down, Louth and Meath in 1969 have done that. No surprise of course. Decent people are always decent people no matter where they are from.
Frank Mitchell presents U105 Phone-In, Mon-Fri, 9am-noon