A YEAR after the first Ukrainian refugees arrived in Mayo fleeing the Russian invasion of their homeland, many feel that the west of Ireland is now their home. Many would like to be actively contributing to society, however.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Mayo has provided refuge to at least 3,373 Ukrainians. Mostly women and children, they are staying largely in hotels, hostels and B&Bs, with some also finding refuge in pledged accommodation.
On Friday, refugees from the war-ravaged country held vigils all over Mayo to mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, which has displaced almost 8 million people and claimed the lives of over 8,000 civilians.
One of the largest vigils was in Newport, where locals joined their new neighbours on the iconic viaduct for a candlelit vigil.
The west Mayo town was one of the first communities to welcome Ukrainian refugees during the first weeks of the war, and with no end to the conflict in sight, many now view Newport and Mayo as their home.
“Newport it is my home now,” explained Yevgeniia Bahlai who arrived in the town last March along with her mother Vira and two young sons.
“My boys are happier here and I am happy,” he explained, adding that she wanted to start a new life in Newport with her family.
Afraid to plan
Khrystyna Sodomora, her husband and her three young boys were among of the first refugees to arrive in Newport last March. She said that with the help of the Newport community they have settled well into life in west Mayo.
“When we left Ukraine we were not expecting anything. We just wanted to escape from Putin. We had no expectations. We knew Ireland was a nice country, and it was always a dream of my husband to visit it one day.
“Here in school the children are very happy. When they arrived they had almost zero English, but my middle son is speaking English better than me, so they are making good progress. They are enjoying school and are happy.
“We are still afraid to build plans because nobody knows what the future will bring we have to be very careful with our plans. If I am to stay in Ireland, it will be in Newport,” she said.
Want to work
Yevgeniia is a qualified accountant but like many Ukrainian refugees she is unable to work in her chosen field in Ireland and has been working in Hotel Newport.
Mary Corrigan of the Newport Action Group which has been helping Ukrainians settle into the town explained that many refugees are highly qualified but bureaucracy is blocking their progress into employment.
“I think the Government needs to do something to help people over this barrier and allow people to join workforces,” she told The Mayo News.
“Things can be changed… at the moment we just have barriers. I know it is the same for all immigrant communities, but this is the largest immigrant community into Ireland in such a long time. Something needs to be done to bring people into the jobs market instead of finding reasons why they should not join it.
“It is frustrating for a lot of them that they cannot work because they are here all day when they want to be working,” she said.
According to Olive Delaney, who also volunteers to help the new arrivals learn English or become more fluent, there are many people with trades and qualifications among the refugees, and they would be a welcome addition to the workforce.
“They are so anxious to get out working. We have one plumber who is great. His speciality is underfloor heating. He is dying to work, and we are crying out for plumbers here.
“We have an abundance of experienced people, and when we meet them they just want to work. We have been in and out of Intreo [the Public Employment Service], and a lot of them have registered. We were told they have to be very good at English, so that is why we have to up the number of English classes.
“Employers say that unless that they can read the health-and-safety booklet in English they can’t take them, and that is one of the big barriers,” she said.
Since the start of the war, over 90 percent of Ukrainian refugees have been accommodated by around Mayo 40 hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses. Just 405 people are living in accommodation pledged by the public.
Tom Gilligan, Mayo County Council’s Director of Services for Housing, explained that the council remains under ‘huge pressure’ to source accommodation.
See News Analysis pages 20-21.