It’s a long way from Clare to Kyiv … and further by the day for displaced Ukrainians

Orla Ní Eilí carries with her an imperishable image of the moment when the consequences of the war fully sank in. In Ballyvaughan, an afternoon in mid-March, the long-time “peacenik” met the newly displaced, listening as a young Ukrainian woman earnestly asked her what would happen next: her fiance was fighting in Ukraine. When he arrived here, she asked, would he be able to learn English?

Her gaze was wide-eyed and intense. Could they live somewhere in the countryside? “It killed me because looking at her, it felt that all that happened in the 100 years since the first World War is that the means of communication had speeded up. ‘When the war is over’. God knows what has happened to him in the meantime,” she says and momentarily chokes up.It’s a sparking autumn morning in Ennis. The November rains have temporarily abated. Ní Eilí is “co-ordinator, allegedly” of the Clare Immigrant Support Centre, a busy, open house located in a business centre not far from Cusack Park, where a kettle constantly bubbles and the lid on a biscuit tin never closes. For six months, they have been furiously busy.On March 2nd, a solidarity walk for Clare was organised in Ennis. There was a big turnout: like everywhere in Europe, a wave of empathy and indignation brought people out. “We were nervous,” Ní Eilí remembers of that moment.“I don’t even know what we were nervous about.”

Even that day, when it started in the morning, we couldn’t believe it was true—  Natalia Kasinskiene

Natalia Kasinskiene was one of those who marched that day. She has lived in Ennis for more than 20 years and had just returned from a six-week break in her native Ukraine. When she arrived in the land of her birth in early January, she had no idea of the horror that was about to be visited on her country.“Of course not. Even that day, when it started in the morning, we couldn’t believe it was true.”Her flight home was booked for March 1st. It was cancelled. She returned to Ireland through Romania just in time for the solidarity walk in Ennis. Since then, family members have scattered across Europe while others, like her uncle, a doctor, are working in Kyiv. Kasinsikiene works in a local hotel and runs the “free shop” that has been set up in the women’s shed in Ennis. Her fluency in both languages means that she is always in demand. “Doctors. Children. Distress and worry. Mostly they are looking for a translator — it is hard to get a translator to go to the doctors. Very few have English, so it is hard.”To drive through the necklace of towns and villages in north Clare is an exercise in strangeness. Since the war broke out, 3,400 Ukrainians have become guests of the county. They will remain so indefinitely. Every so often, the Ukrainian flag or simple yellow and blue bunting can be seen flying from hotel fronts. Some towns — Ennistymon, Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan — have suddenly become 10 per cent Ukrainian.It has been an extraordinary and sudden transformation. So far, the communities have dealt with it admirably. Clare became a beacon because, as Ní Eilí says, a number “of savvy hoteliers put their hands up” in those early frantic weeks when the State was crying out for accommodation. The social and civic response in those early weeks was phenomenal too.“In the beginning, there were people waking up in their own village and seeing that a couple of hundred people had arrived overnight. And women needed nappies [and] formula. People got out of their houses and reacted very quickly. Everyone was at high doh and strained, but they walked down to the local hotels with nappies or buggies or whatever was needed.”Voluntary groups like the Immigrant Support Centre instantly swerved to become de facto mediators: available to try to answer the thousand natural questions of strangers: “They are told they can get this, this and this service but they have no way of accessing it without those middle steps that we provide,” says Karen O’Donovan.“People at the beginning had time and maybe had money and resources to get out. They were highly educated. Now you see people coming from more desperate straits. Older men. It would touch you.”

Europe has opened her doors and we are a part of that solidarity, and we have legal responsibilities—  Jason Murphy, director of service for Clare County Council’s Ukrainian response

Last March, says Jason Murphy, director of service for Clare County Council’s Ukrainian response, nobody knew how long the war would last. There was a vague, optimistic line floating that it might end quickly. Now the war is into its ninth month, with no sign of an end. In Clare, this means an adjustment for both Ukrainians and the local population.“County Clare has just over 3,400 visitors, as I call them,” he says. “Europe has opened her doors and we are a part of that solidarity, and we have legal responsibilities. These people have come to our country, and we have opened our arms to them, and we have a deep sense of community, of migration. The reality is that Co Clare had the infrastructure, from an accommodation perspective, back in March. They were able to meet what was an unprecedented demand. And of course, it was all going to be three, four weeks then. Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated, and we have a longer-term accommodation and housing challenge.”

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The Hydro hotel in Lisdoonvarna is one of the more recognisable landmarks in the town: a striking, white building that has been there for 150 years. The Whites have owned it for the past 40 of those years, first Jim White, and now his son, Marcus. The hotel is home to 250 Ukrainians, mostly women and 102 children. It is pet-friendly, also accommodating 20 cats and 40 dogs that came with the Ukrainians as they fled the war.“We can honestly say we have had very few problems here,” says Marcus White.“When people arrived here in March, it was: ‘Where the hell is Lisdoonvarna.’ They have lost children, husbands, homes, everything — it is unthinkable. This is the most humbling experience I’ve had in 40 years in business. You hear people slating this and that, but I think the Government is doing a really good job. They are under enormous pressure. There are problems and at the very beginning, it was frantic. But everything settles down.”White has tried to make the Hydro as welcoming as possible. On a dismal, wet Friday morning, a log fire blazes in the foyer. English classes are taking place in what used to be the bar. There’s a regular morning yoga class. Residents who have found work travel to Ennis and back by bus.hotel staff treat the bedrooms as residential apartments to give occupants a sense of independence. Rather than collect laundry, White installed a series of washing and drying machines in what used to be the nightclub so guests can retain a degree of privacy. He places a premium on food. He walks us through the dining room and kitchens, where preparations are under way for lunch: the salad and dessert bar are stocked and there is a choice of meals.

If you have very good food in a hotel, you will keep people happy—  Hydro hotel owner Marcus White

The chefs introduced Ukrainian dishes and traditions from the beginning. Though White does not say it, word of the cuisine in the Hydro has spread. Sometimes non-residents nip in to enjoy a meal.“If you have very good food in a hotel, you will keep people happy.”Immersed as he is in hospitality, he knows that living in one is no joke. “If I go on holidays, I can stick a week, maybe two, before I want home again. Imagine what it is like,” he says. He knows that there have been suggestions that hoteliers now offering refugee accommodation are perfectly happy with the situation: they are block booked for an indefinite period. But he is adamant that he was driven by empathy rather than business.“I need the Government to help me,” he says. “I can’t feed everybody every single day. You can be greedy and get high rates — I know I can get better rates with tourism. But every single hotel in this country, bar Dublin, works on a seasonal basis. As a tour operator, I can bring in groups from March until the end of October. Most establishments don’t get busy until April.”‘We will need at least 10,000 new places’: No one in Berlin knows where to put arriving refugees ]Natalya Bondar lives in a hotel in Ennis with her parents, aged 78 and 72. The former teacher’s mother uses a wheelchair. Her sister, too, has medical requirements. They left Ukraine in July. Her English is excellent: she volunteers in the Immigrant Support Centre and has only recently arrived at some sort of rhythm in life.“To be honest, I just now start to realise that I am plugged off from my previous life: just the reality of all this is hitting me, what am I doing here?” The prevailing emotion has drifted between dislocation and gratitude.“It is a great life here and I am so glad I have this opportunity to work. But my parents … that was more difficult because they left their house, their village, their place. All of a sudden, they just pulled out.”The young are more adaptable. In Ukraine, many women are retired by the age of 55. Those who arrive in Ireland are placed on jobseeker’s allowance. “So how they see themselves here is very significant,” says Ní Eilí.“They are astonished to see us in our 60s swanning around and in the thick of it. The older woman is a group we are always concerned about. Because they don’t expect to learn English. They also don’t expect to be here for a long time. And they are lonely as bedamned.”In September, it was reported that social services were creaking in Ballyvaughan. With 350 Ukrainians suddenly added to the patient list in the local medical centre, it had to close its doors to new patients for the first time.“They were legitimate concerns: a small population taking on a large influx,” says Murphy.“They were particularly welcoming. People are here with all the standard needs of the local population and the concern was that there were pressure points on services in Ballyvaughan — schools, general practitioner services, transport services. I think those concerns have been heard at national level.”Over-reliance on hotels for refugees is a slow-moving train that will crash in 2023 ]Murphy’s role involves co-ordinating about 30 agencies, from welfare to transport to gardaí to NGOs. Dental appointments have become all but impossible, general practitioners are finding spaces where there are none. School places can be difficult to source. Some Ukrainian teenagers are continuing their own schooling online. But the goodwill remains.“A lot of this works on goodwill,” says Karen O’Donovan. “And our worry is that we will come to the stage where the goodwill is gone.”In Mná Ag Gaire, a women’s shed initiative set up two years ago, Ukrainian women drift in and out. What was a local group has been reimagined as a gathering point; the free shop is in the main place, there are soup meetings, classes and one-on-one support meetings. Clare County Council has paid the rent, which alleviates pressure. They conduct crafting and sewing classes and recently secured funding for some part-time jobs refashioning donated clothes into usable garments. After the hotels and schooling have been sorted out, these are the vital services — giving people a sense of purpose. Despite everything, they live in hours and days. Nobody is pretending that this is ideal, but it is the best that can be offered.

The ladies mightn’t say much but you can see they are getting relief through doing something — and not having to talk—  Hillary Tonge, project manager at Mná Ag Gaire

“I think we have created a good space,” says Hillary Tonge, project manager at Mná Ag Gaire. “At the start, it was so emotional. We had a lot of gatherings and meetings. We had bands here. We had the ambassador. And there were days we cried away. We communicate through activities. The ladies mightn’t say much but you can see they are getting relief through doing something — and not having to talk. There is a gi rl here still paying her mortgage in Ukraine and hoping her house will be there when she gets back.”When will that be? The implications of that big unknown are beginning to land as winter deepens in Clare. The number of Ukrainians arriving in Clare is levelling off. Last Wednesday, Robert Wainwright of Ballyvaughan Community Development told a meeting that the next step must involve long-term planning.When local hotels decide they want to go back to tourism next year, where do the people who are now living there go, he wonders?Shock wave of missile strike in Poland unnerves world leaders ]“We have to work at how things can be made easier. We have a certain amount of funding we can use for hall rentals, bus travel and things like that. But we don’t know where it sits with the rest of our economy.“Planning will be needed. Clare already suffers from a housing shortage, and the houses that are there are expensive. So, if this is going to be two or three years, some of these people may want to stay long term. There has to be an affordable housing strategy not just for the cities but throughout rural Ireland as well. There are a lot of questions and so we carry on.”Muireann Hyland, who volunteers at Mná Ag Gaire, believes that the next stage is to relocate people from hotels to the homes of people who may have been passed over in the first wave of pledges. That process is beginning. Once Christmas passes, attention will turn to the looming tourist season and the fear that there will be chaos.“There will be hairy moments,” says White. “And we are not going to keep everyone happy. I am here every single day since we opened. You know why? Because there was nobody in the hotel during Covid.”White says he was “talking to the walls” during the pandemic. “And they weren’t talking back to me. And I became very lonely. Like, hello Jim, are you around? My father, like, he died seven years ago. And he wasn’t talking back either. The hotel has gone from that to this. Right now, the Ukrainians we have are just happy to be in Ireland. They don’t want to stay here, obviously. They want to get back to their lives. But they don’t know when that is going to be.”
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