It’s a text-book summer’s day in Mosney, Co. Meath. I’m sitting by the lake where, two decades ago, amorous teenagers in swan boats might have glided through the water against the sound of the nearby waltzers. Behind me stands the now derelict train station where hundreds of seagulls are congregated. A train passes and they scramble into the air in immense white clouds over the kilometers of sandy beaches that lay near-deserted.
Back at our chalet, a team of international volunteers lie exhausted on the grass after another incredible though tiring day. Like them, I could never have formed an accurate picture of where exactly it was I’d be spending the next 3 weeks of my life. It’s understandable. Mosney – once a bustling holiday camp and now one of Europe’s largest privately-owned asylum centres – is a beautiful though eerie place. For one, the size of the centre rivals that of the surrounding villages and towns; and it does feel more like a village than a centre. Yet among the idyllic bungalows and chalets you’ll find the curious relics of a different age. The iconic swimming pool, ballroom, restaurants and dining hall remain largely intact as if someone simply closed shop for the day. Talk to the staff and you’ll also soon discover that most of them – or their parents – hail from the same era. Still, in this beautiful place there also exists a subtext of intense tragedy. Of the approximately 600 asylum seekers resident in Mosney, many have experienced severe persecution in their countries of origin. To make matters worse, many are now also subject to prejudice from the society that has contracted to protect them.
On the one hand, it’s hugely difficult for me, the volunteers and everyone involved in the project to comprehend why such xenophobia exists. Ask any of the kids in Mosney where they’re from and they’ll all answer the same: “I’m Irish” and look at you with a perplexed expression while trying to understand how this wasn’t obvious to you in the first place. And who could argue? Most have spent the majority – many the entirety – of their lives in the centre. They talk with North and South Dublin accents and even, on occasion, the truly mesmeric Meath vernacular. In Mosney, a conversation can easily begin with “C’mere till I tell ya” and end with “D’yaknowwhatImeanlike?”. Most admirably, all the children in the camp clearly possess that intangible ‘Irish-ness’ that we hold in great esteem: the humour, the cheekiness, the self-deprecation and, of course, the ability to mentally offset any and all negative consequences of an action through utterance of the words ‘Sure it’ll be grand!’. On the other hand, looking back to a time before VSI afforded me the experience to see all this for myself, perhaps it’s simple to see how such prejudice is allowed to endure.
Taking matters into my own hands, I contacted Voluntary Service International and arranged to volunteer in a children’s summer camp in an asylum centre in the Netherlands. This experience was soon followed by similar projects in asylum centres in Poland, Switzerland and a year-long project in a Red Cross asylum centre in Belgium under the Erasmus Plus framework. In each instance, living with the same accommodation and provisions as the residents of the centre, I was offered an unparalleled insight into the lives of asylum seekers in Europe. While I had half-expected for my experience to validate what many of my friends and family in Ireland already believed, the only thing I found – simply enough – were humans from every walk of life fleeing persecution.
On returning to Ireland, I became further involved in VSI’s work with asylum seekers. I joined a working group to redevelop the existing children’s summer camp in Mosney and also agreed to coordinate the project. With our collective effort and experience, we succeeded in transforming the project into a genuinely amazing children’s summer camp and – as both Mosney staff and residents will attest to – have been repeatedly able to make an immeasurably positive impact on the quality of life in the centre.
Like those volunteers, the best decision I ever made was to reject a natural prejudice in favour of seeing something with my own eyes. Every year, the work of Voluntary Service International continues to help me and countless others to do just that.
Ben, volunteer from VSI Ireland