Hope against Hope

…which is an odd phrase – almost self-defeating, or implying delusional thinking. Hope has been much on my mind, since I picked it as my word of the year for 2017. I made a collage at the New Year, with hope as its theme.

Arundhati Roy quote
Seeds of hope

This Arundhati Roy quote, culled from Resurgence magazine, has become something of a personal manifesto. It begins “The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive.”

Yesterday I got to meet the living embodiment of that phrase. He is a young man, slim and bearded, a Syrian asylum seeker now living in Co. Roscommon in a Direct Provision accommodation with 200 other refugees. With two others, he shared his journey  from civil war-torn homeland to the relative safety of refuge in Ireland at a gathering of residents at the Loughan House Open Prison, Blacklion, Co. Cavan.

When asked what kept him going, he answered “Hope.” As long as he was alive, he dreamed of being alive and safe. Although separated from loved ones, he was one of the sole survivors of all his fifteen school friends, all causalities of the enmities bearing the bullets of civil war.

Some of you will be aware that I am a tutor on the Irish Arts Council’s Writers in Prison panel. My husband and I also volunteer to support a Toastmasters public speaking group at Loughan. Loughan House also has a coffee shop open to the public, so we have got to know several of the guys and their back stories well. And while it is an Open Prison, the misdeamours that landed them there are not necessarily insignificant.

Our friend Debbie , who invited us to the group, has worked with the refugees since it was announced that they would be coming to her town. She has been shocked by the  at times  casual bigotry she has witnesed. But she also was impressed and humbled to see the outpouring of compassion, understanding and intelligent questioning from the guys at Loughan House.  Many grasped, in only too real ways, how neighbour can have formerly been friend and then circumstances make them a foe and in a short space of time there are undreamed of consequences to actions, decisons made on the flip of a moment. There is good and bad in each of us.

Debbie also explained how Arab culture finds counselling quite alien, but that men do openly  hug and express support and affection for one another.  That’s very different from Irish culture and very, very different from prison culture.

And do you know what? As the group made their farewells there were hand shakes for sure, but also some of those awkward Irish Man Half Hugs, and even some full on hugs man to man. Which is huge. And beautiful.

” …seek joy in the saddest places…pursue beauty to its lair… Never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple… respect strength, never power…watch…try and understand…never look away…and never forget…”

Hope is in all of these. Many in that room knew about violence…even unspeakable violence. They did not look away at a man in tears. They held that space with strength and respect. It was beautiful. And that gives me hope.

Thanks to Brenda McMullen, Debbie Beirne, and all those beautiful men in the room.

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