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International volunteers boost Fermoy’s Tidy Towns bid

As communities across the country prepare for judging in the coming weeks for the annual Tidy Towns awards, the committee in Fermoy in north Cork has received an unexpected boost.

The town is now home to more than 200 International Protection applicants and Ukrainian refugees, and most of them have begun volunteering for the local Tidy Towns as well as other civic and social groups.

Fernando Ferreira has been volunteering for Fermoy Tidy Towns for the past eight years.

Mr Ferreira is originally from Porto in Portugal, but after living in Fermoy for the past 21 years and raising his family here, he considers himself one of the locals.

“I came to Ireland to help a friend deliver a car here in Fermoy,” Fernando explains.

“I was supposed to stay for two weeks. I found a job and I met a local girl and I never returned to Portugal.”

He says home for him is “absolutely” Fermoy.

Fernando Ferriera from Fermoy Tidy Towns says we should give everybody a chance

If Mr Ferreira is an ‘old’ arrival to Fermoy, there have been many more ‘new’ arrivals to the town.

It is home now to dozens of Ukrainian refugees who settled here after fleeing the Russian invasion of their own country.

More recently – and controversially – it is also home to almost 200 International Protection applicants who are being accommodated between the former St Joseph’s Convent and Abbeyville House.

There were protests outside the former convent when the first of the applicants arrived there.

And for several months there were round-the-clock protests outside Abbeyville House until 50 people, mostly families, were moved there in mid-March.

The protests were lifted almost immediately after people moved into Abbeyville House.

Fermoy Tidy Towns volunteers

Since then, dozens of International Protection applicants and Ukrainian refugees have begun to volunteer with Fermoy Tidy Towns group, as well as with other groups such as Fermoy International Garden.

These groups say the new volunteers represent the majority of adults among the International Protection applicants and Ukrianian refugees living in the town.

Mr Ferreira says they have been welcomed by Fermoy Tidy Towns.

“It’s a place where we get to meet people that have the same interests as us, people that have the same struggle as everybody else,” he says.

“We should give everybody a chance – it doesn’t matter from where they are. We should give a chance to everybody to make a life for themselves and their families.”

Yusuf and Agnes Ayeni from Nigeria, volunteering for Fermoy Tidy Towns

Among the volunteers in the Fermoy Tidy Towns group are Agnes and Yusuf Ayeni.

They were among the 52 International Protection applicants who arrived at Abbeyville House on 21 March.

They had travelled from Nigeria with their son and three daughters, seeking International Protection in Ireland because, they say, Nigeria is not safe for them.

“We left Nigeria because we were searching for help,” Agnes says.

“We thought Fermoy – Ireland – is a Christian-based state, is a friendly place, is God-fearing. We just feel it is a beautiful place for our family, and where we will be protected.”

Agnes says she is not conscious of resistance or antipathy to the presence of International Protection applicants in Fermoy.

“No, I haven’t felt any opposition here,” she says. “I feel loved here, I feel protected here, I feel listened to here, so I haven’t felt any opposition in any way.”

Yusuf says his family want to settle in the town.

“Ireland is beautiful. Ireland’s government is good. Ireland’s system is good. We appreciate them, and Ireland is my home,” he says.

Michelle Hawe, from Fermoy International Garden

Fermoy International Garden was established on a former tennis court at the top of McCurtain Street in the town four years ago.

Michelle Hawe says an interest in gardening is all that is required to join the group.

She says around a dozen nationalities are represented by volunteers and it has helped people to integrate.

“I suppose that’s the fallout of it really, the unforeseen benefit that, because our population is so diverse now, we have many different nationalities,” Ms Hawe said.

Alla Levdovkymova at Fermoy International Garden

Alla Levdovkymova fled her home in Kharkiv and the war in Ukraine two years ago. After spending some time in Dublin, she settled in Fermoy.

Ms Levdovkymova, a producer at TV news agency ATN in Kharkiv, says she finds volunteering at Fermoy International Garden is a substitute for her own garden at home in Ukraine, which she misses.

“Ireland [is] very nice, very friendly people. Fermoy? Very nice people – maybe my family,” Ms Levdovkymova says.

Back on the banks of the Blackwater, Fermoy Tidy Towns group is putting in a final push.

A winner of an Irish Business against Litter award in 2018, Fermoy has yet to get among the medals in the Tidy Towns awards.

Last year, the town scored 327 points – its highest ever points tally in the competition.

The group reckon another 10 or 12 points will put Fermoy in the running for at least a bronze medal in this year’s Tidy Towns awards and are hoping their new volunteers will help them achieve that.

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