SUCH A LONG JOURNEY
I remember it all so clearly, the day they arrived in Galway city – disoriented, frightened and looking totally bewildered – a vast array of people fleeing for their lives. There was little sense of dignity or ease among these people. From every corner they came carrying children and supporting their elderly. Many had come long distances, travelling day and night by any means available. With them they brought all they could carry – clothes, food, mementos. There had been no time to settle their affairs – no time for an orderly withdrawal. They had to escape – when, where or how didn’t matter. Major Panic was in charge that day. They had to get away.
Every sailing vessel imaginable packed Galway harbour that morning and with them the traffickers – the gombeens – the middle men ready to exploit any situation. It was if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been released to roam the land and terrify all before them. Who knew when the invisible enemy would strike? Who could hold back the hand of fate? People constantly surveyed the skies or held clothes to their faces. Mothers fretted for their children and strong men blanched with fear. It was back to the days of the coffin ships, another undignified flight from a land ravaged by hunger and disease. Like our ancestors we simply had to get away.
I will never forget the long sea journey in the small boats or landing on the coast of North Africa – alone and abandoned and told to find our own way by the traffickers as they returned to Ireland for more unfortunates. In front of us, countless miles of desert sand and arid mountains not to mention tribal hostility and obstacles both physical and human. A cold reception we had in those early days as we set off in search of a new home.
But, let it be said, Syria was good to us. The country took us in when others refused. They offered to share what they had. They brought us food and gave us shelter. They nodded and smiled and tried to understand our strange language and stranger accents.
All began well but gradually, in the days that followed, a sort of panic set in among our hosts. We kept on coming – thousands and thousands and thousands. How could they cope? They began to fear we would eat up all their food, take over their schools, over-run their hospitals, perhaps steal their jobs? Voices were raised – protesters took to the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. Angry people waved flags and banners asking us to go home. They feared our white faces, our strange form of dress and our curious religions. No wonder some of them began to ask if it was too much. Perhaps we would destroy their country and their ancient culture which had accrued over thousands of years, a civilisation that was much older than ours. How could they absorb us without fatally compromising themselves? Would we change their whole way of life?
What the Syrians did not understand, at the time, was our secret longing to return to our green and pleasant land. In this country of searing sunshine and soaring temperatures we longed for cool, wet days and chilly evenings. We dreamed of the neat houses and trim gardens we had left behind. But could we ever return? Or were we fated to sit by the waters of Babylon and weep forever?
Who could have anticipated, on that bright December day in 2025, that a reactor at the nuclear power plant in Windscale would crash and spew radiation into the air? And who could have predicted that the prevailing westerly winds would be replaced by north-easterlies that same day? Who could have anticipated the panic that would seize Ireland that morning or the mass movement across the central plain as people fled from Dublin and the east coast? We had seen such scenes in films about invaders from Mars, films like the Day of the Triffids or Independence Day. But they were fiction whereas this was reality. An Old Testament pestilence had descended upon us and we had to flee our native land before radiation sickness, or worse, devoured our flesh.
And so, we face an uncertain future, caught between countries that fear our sudden and overwhelming arrival and the country we came from ravaged by a toxic atmosphere and lethal agents of death. We have no idea how long the air will be polluted or how long it will be before our land is able to sustain us again?
In the meantime, we look to the Middle East, the birthplace of civilisation, to save us because we have nowhere else to turn.