Westmeath Volunteer Centre co-ordinator Sharon Timothy and Mohammed Touil.

Columb Barracks asylum seekers ‘give back’ with Kilbeggan clean-up

A group of asylum seekers living in tented accommodation at Columb Barracks are aiming to "give back" to the community through volunteering.

In a partnership with Westmeath Volunteer Centre (WVC) and Kilbeggan Tidy Towns, a group of seven asylum seekers were bussed from the Barracks to Kilbeggan recently to get the town tidy for summer.

It came as part of Volunteer Week, an annual celebration of the role volunteers play in Irish society.

WVC coordinator Sharon Timothy said that a few weeks ago she began meeting asylum seekers at Columb Barracks who were eager to give something back while living in Westmeath.

"We’ve been gathering asylum seekers over the last few weeks and had three meetings to see who was interested," she said.

"It was important for them to have tasks to do, they really want to work, and they need an outlet for themselves.

"So, we decided to link them with Kilbeggan Tidy Towns, who are trying to go for the bronze award in this year’s competition and need all the help they can get to do it."

Ms Timothy hopes the partnership can continue. "The idea is we will hand it over to the Tidy Towns afterward," she said.

"They can ask the guys themselves, ‘Can you come out Sunday week? And they can arrange transport to get them out so that it carries on.

"Ireland has lived on volunteers for a long time, it helped the country through many years of poverty, and there’s a great culture of it here."

The work ethic of the Columb Barracks asylum seekers left an impression on Kilbeggan Tidy Towns chair Bernie McCarthy.

"Nothing was any hassle to the guys; they rolled up their sleeves, picked up the brushes and the shovels, and got stuck in from the start," she said.

"We did great in the Tidy Towns competition last year, upped our points, and we were told that if we aim higher this year, we’ll get a bronze medal.

"Fingers crossed, with the help of these lads, we can do it because it’s a lot of hard work.

"They helped us do a big clean-up of the square, planting, painting and that sort of thing – it’s also a great outlet for them."

One of those helping out was Globy Basia from DR Congo, who arrived in Ireland in December and likes the country so far. "Here is nice, I have been very welcomed, but the main thing is I am safe here," he said.

"I’m doing volunteering today to give something back to this country, that’s why I’m here, it’s nice to be a volunteer and help for a few hours. "I’d like to do more volunteering in the future."

Globy said "family problems" forced him to leave Congo. "I couldn’t stay there because people were coming for my family, it was an ancestral problem, really bad, and my father is dead," he said.

Mohammad Touil said his "life was in danger" at home in Algeria before he decided to come to Ireland. "I had problems there and it was very dangerous for me but I’m in Columb Barracks now and I’m happy, it’s better to be safe," he said.

"But my family is still in Algeria, and I miss them. I want to help today, I’ll do anything to give back, I enjoy helping because we have a lot of free time and it’s something to do."

Moussa Tebbkah, who was also helping clean up Kilbeggan, was a firefighter in Algeria in a past life until he was forced to flee for his life. "Gangsters were doing lots of murders and it wasn’t safe for me, I was in danger," he said.

"I have been hurt by them before, threatened, some people there are not nice and want to do bad things to show they are strong and powerful.

"I was a firefighter, but it wasn’t like here, we did ambulance too and civil defence; I have applied to be a firefighter in Westmeath now."

Originally from Algeria, Chelali Bokemiche had spent around a year and a half in London up until a few months ago when he came to Ireland in fear of being deported to Rwanda. "It’s a good life in the UK, but when they do this thing with the Rwanda [policy] – that’s not good," he said.

"I left Africa and then they want to send me back? Rwanda is not safe either."

Chelali said corruption is rife in his home country. "People think Algeria is safe, but it is not, it’s a hard life," he said.

"If someone has a problem with you, they can pay the police or the judge to come and arrest you.

"One of my friends was arrested and jailed for 10 years because someone didn’t like him – the country is not fair."

More than 100 asylum seekers are currently being accommodated in tents at Columb Barracks and at least 50 Ukrainians in modular homes.