27 Jan 2022

Urgent repair works to begin at Granard home of Syrian family

'Families felt heard' during online meeting with council officials this morning

Longford County Council's main offices. Photo: Michelle Ghee.

Longford County Council

Repair works are to begin next week on the homes of two Syrian families who have been the topic of much online conversation this week.

A meeting was held via Zoom this morning between Longford County Council, Respond Housing Agency, local TDs Joe Flaherty and Robert Troy and a family of Syrian refugees in Granard over the living conditions in their local authority housing.

The meeting was held to discuss a number of issues, including insufficient heating and fumes, which resulted in a pregnant woman and her children spending the night in a car with the engine running.

It was agreed that a new heating system will be installed in the two affected Granard apartments by next week. Huge electricity bills generated by the storage heaters will be paid by Respond and the council for a period of three months.

It is understood the family has resorted to the use of kerosene heaters to keep warm as the heating bills generated by the storage heaters are too high.

The story came to light on Monday afternoon when author, community worker, and former member of the Council of State Ruairí McKiernan posted a lengthy Twitter thread voicing his concerns for the families. The entire thread can be read by clicking the tweet below.

Mr McKiernan has since written a letter, seen by this newspaper, to local councillors seeking support for the families who he says are suffering horrendous difficulties with their housing situation.

"The issues concern alarming deficiencies concerning the standards and safety around housing provision provided by Longford County Council," he wrote.

"Defects include damp, leaks, electrical issues and heating issues. I have been informed construction was being carried out in the house for up to two months when the families, with small children, moved in. I would question how this accommodation came to be provided in the first place.

"Electronic records will reveal the council’s housing department was first contacted about these issues over a year ago. I first became aware of the situation when a local person informed me about one of the people concerned, a woman who is six months pregnant, sleeping in a car (during freezing weather) to keep warm. Given all we know about Ireland’s history of Mother and Baby Homes and the mistreatment of vulnerable groups, it is harrowing to think this kind of thing is happening in our midst."

The support agency Respond have been active on the ground and has more information on the specifics, Mr McKiernan stressed, adding that, as recently as Tuesday, the council appeared to deny responsibility and suggest Respond are responsible for property issues.

"This is staggering and Respond were forced to issue a statement to deny this. The tenants pay rent directly to the council," he said.

In their statement, Respond emphasised that their role is "to support the participation and integration of the families into their communities and wider society, ensuring independence and self-sufficiency".

"Respond work closely with individuals and families, alongside the communities into which they have recently arrived, to assist them in their transition and resettlement in Ireland," the statement read.

"We provide support around things such as learning English, translator services and community integration programmes. Respond are not responsible for providing or managing housing as part of this work."

In a statement released this week, Longford County Council noted that it could not comment on individual cases but its role is one of support for refugees.

"Like every other local authority, Longford County Council works with the Department of Justice and support agencies to provide services to refugees. The Council has successfully provided permanent housing to a number of refugee families in the county and continues to support their integration in to their new communities," a spokesperson stated. 

"While the Council cannot comment on individual cases, Longford County Council works with all individuals and families to ensure that their housing needs are met.

"Longford County Council is aware of one family that has raised issues regarding their accommodation provided to them under the Refugee Resettlement Programme and has responded.

"As you can appreciate, individuals under this programme can require additional supports and interventions. Longford County Council works closely with a range of organisations and agencies to ensure a smooth transition to life in Ireland and that their needs are met."

Local TD Joe Flaherty rowed in behind the council, who he says are working hard to address the issues of the Syrian families living in local authority housing.

"Longford County Council led the way in the resettlement programme for Syrian refugees and provided homes for 12 families and 60 people in Ballymahon and Longford," he told the Longford Leader this week.

"The Council manages a stock of over 2,000 houses and a dedicated maintenance team strives to address issues and problems as they arise. I was alerted to the situation affecting two Syrian families on January 15th and discussed with the Council  executive on January 18th. I am satisfied that the council are addressing the issues."

Mr McKiernan, however, feels that there is not enough being done to help these families and has urged local councillors to push for more effort to be made.

"While I am well aware everyone has a full plate at present, I wish to emphasise the particular vulnerability of the people concerned. Not just basic health and safety issues, but these are people who fled a war, lived in refugee camps, and were offered sanctuary by the Irish government under an EU funded UN resettlement programme," he argued.

"The response, or lack thereof, from Longford County Council to their welfare has directly caused huge distress, what one war survivor calls 'a psychological war that I never expected'.

"While a meeting (was) scheduled to explore the issues I’m concerned at the potential for any further delays. I’m in touch with ministers, TDs, Tusla, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, various NGOs, the UNHCR and others on this but we still haven’t secured a solution.

"There would appear to be fundamental deficiencies within the council in this area and huge questions over ethics and accountability. While I appreciate great work has been done around integration in County Longford, and the families generally feel well-supported by the community, bigger questions need to be asked here of those responsible. I know there are always complexities but some aspects of this are straightforward," Mr McKiernan continued in his letter to local councillors.

"I am appealing to you to do anything you can do to ensure an adequate response to concerns and also to ensure similar issues don’t occur in the future. For now, I will be continuing to campaign on this in an individual voluntary (non-party/organisation) capacity and sincerely hope that the families can receive due care and support in the coming hours or days."

Eager to emphasise the seriousness of the situation, Mr McKiernan shared a testimony of one of the men living in the local authority housing, who said that this current "psychological war" he is fighting is worse than the real war he escaped in his home country.

"I escaped from Bashar al-Assad’s missiles and murder, and I went to Lebanon, a country of racism and sectarianism, and I endured everything for the sake of my wife and children, fatigue, hunger and deprivation," said the man, who does not wish to be named.

"A warm home because my daughter suffers from bedwetting and we came here and I dream that I will change my whole life and make my children and my wife happy, so I started here a psychological war that I never expected. I expect that it is harder than the real war.

"My situation has changed for the worse. The failure from some sides because I suffer from a problem that is big for me, but it is a small problem for the Irish state, but I did not find a solution. I am tired and tired. I have found a glimmer of hope in this generous campaign," he concluded.

Following this morning's meeting with council officials, the family is said to be optimistic, but cautious until issues are fully resolved.

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