An older man from Derry and his wife sit attentively at a Syrian refugee crisis event in the Foyle Arena.
The couple are not members of any organisation or charity, they’re at the event because they want to help.
“Sure our wains are all grown up and gone,” the man whispers to his wife. “We are basically living downstairs in that big house - there’s no reason why a Syrian family couldn’t live with us for a while until they find their feet.” The older man’s wife agrees, nods and touches his hand.
The desire of Derry people to help Syrian refugees was never as evident as it was inside the main hall in the Foyle Arena on Friday. The event, called ‘From Syria to Sanctuary’, was spearheaded by Mayor of Derry and Strabane, Elisha McCallion.
Open to the public, ‘From Syria to Sanctuary’ was emotive, informative and extremely insightful.
Refugees and asylum seekers living in Derry and other parts of the North addressed those gathered and talked candidly about why they left their respective countries and explained what life has been like for them since arriving here.
Ian Snowden from the Department for Social Development (DSD) detailed the role Northen Ireland will play over the next five years in accepting its share of 20,000 Syrian refugees.
The first group of Syrian refugees are expected to arrive in the North shortly before Christmas. Mr. Snowden explained that this group would be settled in Belfast but said he expected Derry to receive a group of Syrian refugees in early 2016.
Chief Executive of the Refugee Council (UK), Maurice Wren, provided perhaps one of the most impressive talks at the conference.
Mr. Wren, whose mother is from Buncrana and father from Co. Kerry, lambasted the current Conservative Party government in Westminster for its “pernicious attempts to divide and play upon people’s fears”.
Mr. Wren described the decision of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to agree to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees into the UK over the next five years as a good start as long it was one of many steps toward accepting many more.
“My organisation has been calling on a resettlement programme for Syrian refugees for the last two years. Syrian refugees went from being politically toxic to politically salient. The British Government went from accepting a measly 750 Syrian refugees to 20,000, but that number can only be considered a positive step if it is a first step. We need to be doing much more.
“The British Government will review 30,000 applications made by refugees this year. If the British Government was to accept all those refugees and say 5,000 of the 20,000 Syrian refugees the total would barely be the same number of refugees that cross into Greece over a weekend.”
Mr. Wren added: “I would also say that it is imperative that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are properly resourced - it’s no good politicians sitting down and talking to us, nodding their head and then ignoring all that we tell them when they leave. What is happening in Europe is not a refugee crisis - it’s a crisis of will, it’s a crisis of doing the right thing.”
Inevitably, politics and frustration with government policy was never going to be far away.
Sinn Fein MEP, Martina Anderson, spoke emotionally about her recent visit to the refugee camps managed by the UN in Jordan.
The conference also provided refugees from Kenya, Ivory Coast and Somalia with the chance to talk about their own lives and about the different organisations providing support in Northern Ireland.
Lilian Seenoi arrived in Derry from Kenya in 2010 with her young son, Brian. Lilian conceded that she had experienced some negative exchanges over the years but was eager to highlight that her general experience was positive, welcoming and empowering.
“If you’ve never met a refugee before you can now say you have - I am a refugee,” said Lilian.
“I have friends who are Irish, British and who are from the migrant community. I regard Derry as my home and like most refugees here I enjoy being part of the community.
“Two years after I arrived here Derry was crowned the UK City of Culture. I think one of the reasons Derry won the award was because the city’s is rich in culture and refugees like me have contributed to this richness.
“I am delighted that the Community Relations department of Derry City and Strabane District Council organised a conference which gave us the opportunity to share our experience with the public and also dispel the myths surrounding Syrian refugees. “The fact that the community responded and more than 100 people took part in the conference shows that there is an appetite and the goodwill to support refugees in this city. I also welcome the decision that was taken by the council to establish a working group for race equality in this council area, we look forward to working with the council officers to establish a mechanism that will provide us with a structure to respond to any concerns that the public may have in relations to ethnic minorities in this city,” said Lilian.
Pupils from St. Columb’s College and St. Mary’s College took part in workshops during the conference.
The young people learned about Islam and were able to question Muslims living in Derry.
“I think it’s been an extremely positive event and I will do everything to ensure the momentum keeps moving towards acceptance and understanding of refugees,” said Derry and Strabane Mayor, Elisha McCallion.