Embrace empathy, not ignorance, towards refugees

To be home in Ireland now feels like a novelty. My everyday things that I do don’t feel like the norm anymore. However I know, with time, I will slot back into the routine of things. As I sit here writing this, I have just returned from Killykeen where I went walking with my dog on an amazingly frosty morning. On the way home, I ran into Killeshandra for brown bread and the newspaper. I couldn’t have felt more at home, back to normality. Lately, I find myself questioning everything from our culture to my career. Even if I don’t buy every newspaper I see in the shop, I have made it my habit to do a quick scan of all the front pages at least; comparing the headlines, seeing what each publication considers the most newsworthy and checking the wording of each. I was saddened to see a huge advertisement on the front page of my favourite publication. As I turned the first few pages, I realised that perhaps the ad was better off where it was.

I am not shocked to see that Ireland is retaliating against the number of refugees that have been taken into the country. There is an extreme aura of ‘look after your own’ here, as in serving the people of our own country before even considering helping others. You can feel it in families, hear it in conversation and especially now see it in the reaction to nearly 75,000 people being accommodated here. I had read about the protests taking place across the country online when I was in Belgium.

Since coming home, I have heard several people stating how such a place is closed, or more commonly has been “taken over by Ukrainians” or how somewhere is now “full of foreigners". It's easy to fall into the trap of an 'us against them' mentality and I won't lie, until I was a foreigner myself, I probably would have made some of these statements or at least agreed with them.

I remember the first time I realised that I was a foreigner in Belgium. I was trying to apply for my residence permit, and I had no idea how to manoeuvre the website. Anyone with experience of the Belgian registration process will relate, it’s a nightmare from start to finish. Thankfully, for the entire duration of my internship, I had a Belgian national sitting in front of me. After pretty much making the appointment for me, I was informed that I would have to go to the foreigners' office. To this day, I still laugh. I looked at him, my eyes widened. In my mind and in my world to date, the word foreigner has always been used as an insult. I know he was shocked, he really didn’t know what to do. Our days would be spent insulting each other while getting work done, don’t get me wrong never in a bad way. I have often laughed out loud and told him he was good craic, a term which confused him at the start but he learned to take it as a compliment. However, now this person who rarely takes offence and almost always has an answer, was taking offence to being called a foreigner.

“You are a foreigner here,” he said, confusion on his face.

Just as he realised how I was taking being called a foreigner, I realised the extent of the prejudice I have and experienced in my life to date. He thought he had used the wrong word, as a non-native speaker. I said he didn’t, and I apologised for my reaction. I explained that, in my life, I have only ever heard the word foreigner used in a negative context. This is when I realised the extent of the problem, the fear of other cultures that has been ingrained in me growing up in rural Ireland. I explained this, which was met with understanding. He said some Belgian people are like this too and he understood my reaction. It didn’t make me feel any better about the situation.

I have recently finished Cillian Murphy’s ‘Ionbha: The Empathy Book for Ireland’, which has completely changed my outlook on the world. The book holds essays, memoirs, poems and songs from people on all walks of life. The core theme of the book as the title suggests is empathy; taking a walk in somebody else's shoes, making the effort to see and experience from their point of view. This book has helped me on a small and large scale, and I cannot recommend it enough. The benefits of implementing empathy in our daily lives are endless. Somebody snaps the head off you at work? Try to experience what they are going through. Maybe they have received bad news, or their child is sick at home, they are under pressure, who knows?

While this doesn’t give the person a right to take it out on you, I do find it helps maintain a calm reaction. Understanding, compassion, asking them to go for a coffee and a chat could reveal a lot. On a larger scale, people are coming into Ireland after fleeing war-torn countries. What these people have experienced is unimaginable, I think they need our empathy rather than ignorance.

* Gemma Good is from Killeshandra and a third year journalism student in University of Limerick


As one door closes, another opens...