Tell Me About It

I have faced hostility from my community since helping refugees

Tell Me About It: I’m fed up with the intolerance and considering moving to a different city

PROBLEM: I was born in a war-torn part of the Middle East to an Irish mother and Arabic father. In my early teens, after witnessing a series of traumatic events in the neighbourhood, my parents sent me to live with my grandparents in a rural Irish village. I was familiar with the area as throughout my childhood I had visited at least once a year. I knew most of the local kids, and because I am a good footballer, I was popular, and they accepted me very quickly.

I never really thought that I experienced racism. I allowed my friends to shorten my first name so that it sounded Irish and my grandparents encouraged me to adopt their surname when introducing myself to people in the surrounding region.

As my skin tone is light, and I now speak with a familiar Irish dialect, it is rare that new people I meet are even aware of my ethnicity. Initially, I liked the fact that I blended in, but in my late teens I quietly realised that I had lost touch with my heritage. I have not returned to my homeland in over a decade, but my parents – accompanied by my older sister and her children – visit Ireland every couple of years. I look forward to these visits not just because I get to see my family, but because I get to experience my culture.

My grandparents have now passed, and I have inherited their house and have taken over their thriving family business, something which is especially important to me. In the last few years, I have become actively involved with a charity that supports people from my country of origin that have been processed through asylum in Ireland. Recently, I employed a small number of those who avail of the charity and provided them with short-term accommodation in my home.

Since then I have experienced hostility from family, friends, and strangers. It was subtle at the beginning with my future in-laws first suggesting that I had done well for myself and should not rock the boat in case it might impact on the business. A few months ago, after hearing me speak Arabic, my so-called Irish friends staged an intervention as they feared that I was at risk of becoming radicalised. Then a local garda approached me on the street and kindly told me that he admired what I was doing with the refugees, but that if he found out that I was helping to bring people into the country illegally he would come down hard on me.

I love this village and feel privileged to have had the opportunity to come here at such a difficult time. It is the place that I would most like to rear my future children and spend my life. But I am fed up with the intolerance and am now seriously considering starting over again by selling the house and business and moving to a larger town or city.

My fiancée is incredibly supportive and says she will move anywhere with me, but she does think that I am over-reacting to what she feels are isolated incidents of racism that could happen anywhere.

ADVICE: When we challenge the status quo, we inevitably experience push-back so you should not be too surprised that you are receiving some opposition. The truth is that fear is prevalent in our world and creates a prejudice that you are now at the receiving end of. The only way to overcome fear is to face it, and the best way of tackling difference is engagement, so your path is laid out: to get your community more involved in your project and to have perseverance and courage in the face of threat.

It is wonderful that your fiancée is so supportive and this augers well for future relationships with your in-laws; she clearly sees the worth in what you are doing

You are in a unique position in that you have already gained the trust and confidence of your community and now that privilege needs to be put to good use so do not step down when the possibilities of a breakthrough are so imminent. Irish people should know what it is like to be at the receiving end of bias and judgment and also know that the pathway to acceptance is participation, jobs, education and determination. This is what you are offering these young people and if they are to succeed, you must first model the journey.

All the necessary tools are already in your toolkit: you have a business so perhaps could consider mobilising the business community to assist you; you are a good footballer and the local sports clubs could become a vital part in supporting you; you have rediscovered a love for your Arabic culture and this is something that can be made available to your village. Consider setting up an advisory board to help these young people settle in.

Invite the local Garda, business leaders, teachers, parish leaders and sports people to sit on the board and soon you will find that their understanding and support will be harnessed to your goal. There may well be debate and some prejudices exposed, but you will find that others will challenge them, and it is not always up to you to answer all the fears and worries. You might encourage a buddy system for your new assistants and one of the first jobs of your new board could be to set this up so that there is more involvement in all parts of the community. You will not then be alone in your endeavours and indeed could even seek funding for your project, if that was a direction you might like to try.

It is wonderful that your fiancée is so supportive and this augers well for future relationships with your in-laws; she clearly sees the worth in what you are doing and together you can plan how to get your future in-laws more involved and proud of what you are doing.

You are now offered an opportunity to step into your power, to stand up for your heritage (both of them) and to be the leader in the change that is so badly needed in our world.