The power of sport and community merge to help Ukrainian refugees in Roscommon
Gima Olifir was hours away from catching a flight to kyiv on February 24, the day the Russian invasion began.
Embarkation in Sri Lanka – where he was on vacation – was canceled when the news broke. He went to Poland instead, then to Germany, and now he’s in Roscommon.
Twali Salim, originally from Tanzania, had lived in Ukraine for seven years. A final year medical student in Sumy, his last two weeks were spent in a besieged city. The Red Cross and the United Nations helped him escape to Hungary and then to Ireland.
Under martial law in Ukraine, men of conscription age (18 to 60) are not allowed to leave the country if they are citizens. In Olifir’s case, being on vacation when the war broke out meant he didn’t need to return to Ukraine, while Salim was studying in Ukraine and not a citizen.
Fast forward a few weeks and they are at Creggs Rugby Club in County Galway, 22 of a group of over 60 people staying at the former Cuisle Holiday Center in Donamon near the town of Roscommon. They participate in a game of tag rugby before watching the senior men’s team take on a visiting team from Chicago.
They are told the bus leaves at 9 p.m., and with the game still not over, they rush to the meeting point well in advance. “Don’t worry guys,” local club member Niall Quinn told them. “There is no rush, hang around. The bus will not leave without you.
Things are very different here.
“Oh my God, they are amazing; the Irish are very good, they are very helpful,” Salim told The Irish Times. “To be honest, we are very grateful to be here and we have been welcomed and we feel that we are in the right place. The treatment they give us is amazing. Everyone takes good care of us. We don’t know not how to repay this.It’s more than enough, more than we thought we could get from anywhere.
“The moment you leave Ukraine, it’s just to get out first. You can’t fly from Ukraine, so we went to Hungary, which is the closest border. From there, we checked and I had some instincts – and I said let me try Ireland because I heard of a good reputation about this country The people are good and the society is nice and they will help us and that’s why I’m here… Right now I’m at a rugby game like nothing happened so it’s amazing to be here.
As well as the game at Creggs, Connacht Rugby development manager Michael Glennon also called on Cuisle to teach some of the Ukrainian refugees rugby skills.
“There’s no real model or structure, but Michael Glennon helps them and drills with them and gets them into the game of rugby as much as possible,” says Creggs RFC executive committee member Adrian Leddy and of the IRFU. . “They like it and get out there and get involved and it’s a new game for them. The community is very involved, it shows the community spirit that exists and what people can do by working together and supporting people.
“There are many ways to support – there are people delivering things, meeting them or even sitting down to play games of cards and checkers. We offered them rugby balls, boots and equipment. We put a pool table in the place.
“This is an ideal building for the location, very well laid out, as good if not better than most hotels. But there’s nothing else to do around Donamon, so yeah, we try to make it as good as possible on the spot.
Leddy explains that there is “a big push” to get refugees back to work or school, or so they can get social benefits.
Olifir (32) loves networking and wants to get back to work and working. “I came to Ireland because of the English language and that’s good for me. The community has been good and it’s easier to meet people here and network than in Germany. His parents are still in kyiv.
Recalling the Russian invasion, Salim (25) says: “People were scared and angry at the same time. Everyone thought this thing wouldn’t go this far, but when it happened, we were so scared that we could see other cities being bombed – and ourselves, we could hear the sound of the bombs and see air strikes.
On March 8, the Red Cross – with UN assistance – helped him escape on a bus through a green corridor to Hungary. “Most of my friends who I played football with and my neighbors, people I studied with and my friends are joining the forces. Most of them have joined the army and they are currently fighting.
“My friends who I live with at the moment in Roscommon, they have neighbors and friends who have passed away. I haven’t had a death on my side yet but it’s very sad.
Going to Gaelic football and rugby since arriving has done him good. “It helps a lot. When I came here it was my first time hearing about Gaelic football and someone told me you use both hands and feet so I thought it might be easy – but I checked on YouTube and learned to love it. It’s not that easy, it’s actually much more complex than football.
“Everyone I talk to here, morale is high and everyone I meet is like, ‘Wow, those Irish people are amazing and we needed them’. And I haven’t seen anyone take on a challenge that they hadn’t been helped because they are open with us and they say if you need anything come and see us and we are here and ready to help you so we give them the information and they give us very good care.
Learning the skills of rugby may seem insignificant in the larger tragedy of war, but the power of sport and the power of community should not be underestimated. The bus left at the end of the match, but not immediately and especially not at 9 p.m. Discussions took place and everyone was on board and taken care of.
For a few hours anyway, a well-deserved distraction. The locals are already planning what they can do next.