Hosting refugees: ‘Trauma is huge ... it's not like providing Airbnb’

More than 10,000 people pledged accommodation for Ukrainian refugees. How does it work?

Martin Hawkes and his wife, Róisín Connolly, are experienced hosts of refugees. In September 2017, they offered a spare room in their home in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar to Ahmad*, who had fled from his home city of Aleppo, travelled across Syria and Turkey to the Greek Islands before accepting an offer from the Irish Embassy to move to Ireland.

“He came to us as part of the Red Cross programme for unaccompanied young males from Syria. He stayed with us for 18 months. He suffered from post-traumatic stress and depression but, like others, he re-built his life, studying English, maths and IT at Rathmines college,” explains Hawkes. Ahmad is now studying at the Institute of Technology in Carlow and living in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow with his family who moved here in 2020.

Hawkes and Connolly, who also hosted another Syrian man for a few months, are sharing their home with a young Afghan woman, Sakina*, and will also offer accommodation to a Ukrainian. “It’s just the two of us so we have plenty of space. We originally responded to the Red Cross appeal in 2016 after watching the horrors of the war in Syria on our screens. It has been an enriching experience. We have learned so much about their culture.”

A case worker from the Red Cross helped the Syrians register with a GP, get social welfare allowances and set up a bank account while staying with their hosts. “There is a lot of bureaucracy to get through at the start but when they find their feet and get into English classes, education and employment, off they go. The Syrians are here for the long haul because their country has been demolished and the Afghan women are fleeing Taliban rule but I feel the Ukrainians might want to return although it’s very uncertain in terms of what the future holds.”


Hawkes believes the huge response from Irish people to Ukrainians fleeing their homes is partly because it is so close to Ireland. “They look like us. They talk like us. Their values and religions are somewhat like ours. This makes the initial engagement easier but, underneath the skin, we are all the same.”

‘It’s best not to overthink it’

Angela Flynn who with her partner, Paul McRedmond, has previously hosted Syrian refugees and has pledged accommodation to incoming Ukrainians says it’s best “not to overthink it”.

“You are making a difference to someone’s life. Things you might worry about won’t be a problem,” says Flynn.

When two young Syrian men came to stay in their Co Wicklow home through the Irish Red Cross refugee protection scheme, Flynn was initially concerned about how they would interact with her daughter who was a student nurse at the time.

“They spent most of their time talking to people back in Syria. Baara stayed about a year and then moved to stay with his brother in Cork while Mahmoud stayed 2½ years before moving into shared accommodation with friends,” explains Flynn.

During their stay, the young Syrian men cooked their own food and had their own networks. “It worked fluidly for us, and in Ireland, we are used to eastern Europeans living here so they will integrate well,” says Flynn.

‘Peer support groups among hosting families will be important’

Dr Mary Coffey, a GP in Kells, Co Meath, was a founder member of New Beginnings, the community sponsorship group in Kells which has welcomed a Syrian family to the town. Initially, she hosted the son of that family. “Belal* came to stay with me in May 2018 from the Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon and stayed for 15 months. He cooked for himself and he had a dedicated part of the kitchen and a shelf in the fridge. It’s important to set down ground rules so everyone pulls their weight and follows basic good manners like not playing music in the middle of the night. He cut the grass and put out the rubbish. It didn’t change how I lived in my own house.”

Within nine days of his arrival with Coffey, Belal applied for his family to join him and, in May 2021, the New Beginnings group found a house in Kells for his parents, younger sister, older brother and himself to move into. “We are now preparing for the arrival of the mother and father and three siblings of Belal’s mother,” she explains.

Coffey says that often when people arrive first, there is a sense of their lives being on hold. "Everything comes to a standstill while they wait for something to happen. Trauma is huge and hosts need to be prepared for that. It's not like providing an Airbnb for people on holidays. It will be mothers with small children coming from Ukraine without the support of their husbands. And, of course, they will want to go back soon. The Ukrainians are deeply patriotic and many of them don't want to be any place except home."

Coffey says while the Ukrainians will automatically gravitate towards each other, host families can learn from each other too while preserving and respecting confidentiality. “I had another friend hosting two young men when I had Belal staying with me. Peer support groups among hosting families in towns will be important when Ukrainians come too,” says Coffey, who is a member of Ireland Says Welcome, a sub-group of Comhlamh.

‘Rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one’

Liam O’Dwyer, secretary general of the Irish Red Cross, says the organisation has received more than 10,000 pledges of accommodation in the past 10 days. The scale of response requires the organisation – which is the official partner of the Department of Justice offering accommodation to incoming Ukrainians – to rethink its standard way of organising accommodation for refugees.

“We’re used to dealing with 200-400 homes for refugees where we knew precisely how many people arrived but we don’t know how many people from the Ukraine are coming to Ireland. I’m not anticipating that Ukrainian people will be staying here after the war but we don’t know how long it will last,” he says.

The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has said more than two million people have fled Ukraine in 12 days, making it the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the second World War. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said: "I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one. Hour by hour, minute by minute, more people are fleeing the terrible reality of violence."

In an unprecedented move, the EU agreed to grant all Ukrainians temporary residence in the EU activating the never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive to bypass the usual asylum procedures.

This allows Ukrainians and family members to travel to any EU country with the right to work and access education and healthcare in the member state. Temporary residence is also offered to non-Ukrainian permanent residents who can’t return safely to their country of origin. The requirement to show passports and visas has been temporarily waived and, on March 6th, Ireland also dropped the requirement for Covid vaccination certificates for people arriving here from Ukraine.

O’Dwyer says the most important thing host families can do – once their offer of accommodation has been accepted by the Irish Red Cross – is to be aware of the trauma that those arriving here have gone through. “Some people will need to talk and others won’t want to talk but being there to listen and giving people the space to recover is most important.”

As not everyone will speak English, interpreters from the Ukrainian community will also be needed. " We are currently reaching out to the Ukrainian community in Ireland for this," says O'Dwyer. The Irish Red Cross and other refugee agencies (the Refugee Council, The Immigrant Council of Ireland and Crosscare Migrant Project in Dublin, Nasc and in Cork and Doras Luimni in Limerick) offer practical assistance (getting social welfare allowances, medical cards, school places for children, job opportunities for adults). Some also offer psycho-social counselling.

O’Dwyer says while families hosting refugees are not Garda vetted – and never have been – he says the Irish Red Cross hasn’t received any complaints from previous refugees who have taken up free accommodation offers.

Considering the arrival of women and children from the Ukraine, he adds: “In these cases, parents who come will be the custodians of their children and you don’t need to be Garda vetted to host adults.”

Other organisations – such as the Irish Refugee Council – that are taking accommodation pledges from the public will send these offers to the Irish Red Cross. Ukrainians arriving at airports and ports in Ireland seeking accommodation will be met by staff from the Irish Refugee Protection Programme and will be brought to reception centres or hotels for their initial stay before longer term accommodation is organised.

Coffey says while host families will probably expect families to be grateful – “and they will be grateful” – it’s important to remember that “there will be give and take and respect needed from both sides”.

“You will be changed by your decision to take people into your home. My sense is that people are offering accommodation out of duty/obligation but there is a gift there too. There are times it won’t be easy but it’s drawing on the best of who we are. And if you give of your best, it takes the burden away.”

*First names only have been used to protect refugees’ identities

How to become a host

The Irish Red Cross manages the official website for people to register a spare room or vacant property for use by Ukrainian refugees arriving in Ireland. Hosts are asked to offer accommodation for between six and 12 months. Pledges of services and goods can also be made on the site.

Liam O’Dwyer, secretary general of the Irish Red Cross, says there were more than 10,000 pledges of accommodation in the previous 10 days. “Our job now is to get a sense of what is being offered –whether it is a complete property or shared accommodation. Then, we will link these to mothers with their children or single people arriving from Ukraine. A large team has just been brought in to process these pledges and we will get back to everyone to verify their details in the next couple of weeks,” he says.