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Fr Michael Sheil sj, Rector at Clongowes Wood College in Ireland, shares the story of how a small army of volunteers at the local parish of Clane/Rathcoffey plus a group of Transition Year students worked to give a cottage a facelift for the arrival of the Al Sheblak family who were living in the awful conditions of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

Five years ago last September, at the height of the crisis of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean, Pope Francis proposed an extraordinary challenge at his Sunday audience in Rome. As Leader of the Catholic Church and the son of Italian emigrants to Argentina he made an impassioned appeal to every parish and group of Christians to take in one refugee family. For the past six months our local parish of Clane/Rathcoffey has been quietly working to accept this challenge in a remarkable example of inventive teamwork. Fr Paul O’Boyle headed a committee comprising a dozen parishioners with a variety of skills: a lawyer, a social worker, a property agent, homemakers, tradesmen and medics. An application to take a refugee family has to be accompanied by a guarantee of accommodation and the Jesuit Community was delighted to provide this guarantee by offering Cappolis Cottage – the small bungalow on the back avenue. A small army of volunteers plus a group of our own Transition Year students worked to give the cottage a facelift and a great variety of events took place in the parish to raise funds. Our offering of the cottage is an important gesture of solidarity by Clongowes in the life of the parish. A short time before their arrival the Al Sheblak family was living in the awful conditions of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where their two children were born. When they arrived in Ireland Khalad had just turned 30, his wife, Noor, was 24 and they had two small girls, Dania (2) and Taleen (1). The plan was that they would stay with us for a short while until suitable accommodation was found in a more central site in the parish community.

One of the first experiences of Ireland for this Muslim Family came immediately with a visit to Santa, who was holding court for Staff Families in the School Refectory. The girls returned home with festive gifts from the ‘man-with-the-white beard’. From slow and shy beginnings the quartet became part of the landscape and the local community rallied round, helping with the shopping, arranging English classes or simply dropping in to say hello from time to time. In the first few weeks, the family was greatly helped by an occasional visit from Fr Fouad Nakhla, S.J., a Syrian Tertian from Manresa, and gradually they became a familiar sight on the avenue as they ventured up towards the castle. But nobody knew of the pandemic which would change the life of everyone early in 2020 and their intended two-month stay extended to all of 12 – almost to the day. Recently the committee has succeeded in finding the family accommodation in the village and within the local community, nearer to the shops and – for Taleen – the school which she joined last September. We were both sad and glad as we bade them farewell and wished them happiness and good fortune in their new home. Our thanks to Fr Paul and his Committee and to all of those who made the El Sheblaks so welcome by helping out in various ways especially to Fr Paul’s team who, along with Br Tom Phelan, gave the Cottage a real facelift as well as to the Clongowes staff and friends who provided everything from buggies and clothes and food to dolls and games – and even a load of Br Cha’s firewood!

Khalad with Dania and Noor with Taleen visiting Santa’s Grotto.

It has been a great experience for all of us to share in answering Francis’ call and we have all been enriched by what we have received over and above what we have been able to give this lovely Family. As Jesus told us: Give and there will be gifts for you… a full measure – pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing – will be poured into your lap. [Luke 6:38]. We had good reason to be glad to be sad and we wish them God’s blessing for the future and we thank them for their youthful presence among us.