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Ireland has taken in thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the war started

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

More than 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the war started. Ireland, a nation of just 5 million people that in Europe is geographically the furthest away from Ukraine, has already welcomed about 10,000 Ukrainian refugees so far. Marina Spivak (ph) is one of them. Her home in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv was destroyed in the first hours of the war on February 24. She traveled about 750 miles by car to Romania with her four children, her husband and another family. They left with only the clothes on their backs, no time to pack. Then they flew to Ireland, which welcomed them with open arms.

MARINA SPIVAK: We are so very happy to stay in Ireland because it's a very kindly people and very understand what about Ukraine situation and war. And we lost our houses. We died, our people, our children, in our country.

MARTINEZ: Marina, who owned a cosmetology and dermatology clinic, doesn't know when she'll be able to return to Ukraine or where her mother and nephew still live.

SPIVAK: I know that many building is destroyed now. And whole center of my city is destroyed now. And I don't know how many yet, building my country. And now I don't what I do in the future.

MARTINEZ: Refugee groups expect that at least 50,000 Ukrainians could settle in Ireland, a number that could double if the conflict intensifies. Refugees are provided asylum, as well as access to housing, education and medical treatment under the European Union's special protection directive for the first time since it was enacted in 2001. I talked to Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, a non-governmental organization that is helping Ukrainian refugees resettle in Ireland.

And why is Ireland so welcoming right now to Ukrainian refugees?

NICK HENDERSON: I think people have a lot of affinity and a lot of sympathy and solidarity with Ukrainian people currently. The Russian invasion, as we all can see, is shocking in many ways. And people recognize that fact. They see Ukrainians as fellow Europeans, as people who deserve our solidarity and support. And they want to do something to help them. And I think, while we very much commend the Irish government for their response and the way that they have responded to supporting Ukrainian refugees, it is also worth flagging that. And I think a lot of people in the Irish asylum system will be looking across and thinking, wow, what they've done for Ukrainian people, they could have also done for us when we arrived into Ireland. Ten thousand people have arrived within three weeks. And that is as many people who've applied for asylum or refugee status in Ireland since 2019. And that's only 3 to 4 weeks since the invasion commenced.

MARTINEZ: So Nick, on long-term housing - I know Ireland currently has a housing crisis of its own. How is it planning to accommodate such a large influx of refugees, over 10,000?

HENDERSON: This is the huge challenge. It's going to be very difficult. We do have a housing crisis. There are already 2,000 people in asylum accommodation who, in theory, can leave but cannot because of the housing crisis. And Ukrainian people will be, in effect, in that same situation.

MARTINEZ: I know there's been concerns by the U.K. over Russians possibly infiltrating the U.K., pretending to be Ukrainian refugees. Does Ireland share those security concerns?

HENDERSON: The U.K. have messed - I would say, almost messed around on this issue and not made quick decisions. And that is exactly what people don't need. People need to be given support and assistance and access to a safe place now, not some time in the future. And it's also worth remembering as well, we have many other countries, as does the U.K., where people can arrive from without a visa. So you know, security concerns don't necessarily - apparently don't apply to those countries. So why should they apply to Ukraine as well?

MARTINEZ: Nick, what have you heard from some of the Ukrainian refugees that have arrived in Ireland already? What stories stand out to you?

HENDERSON: So there's several things. I think people - what we're seeing is just a relief to be able to get out of the situation, to be here and to be in a safe place. We had St. Patrick's Day, a national holiday, on Thursday, last week. And already, some people were able to enjoy that. And we've had calls and emails wishing us a happy St Patrick's Day. So people are already sort of starting to feel not that this is their home - I think that will take months, if not years - but that at least it's somewhere that they can be safe.

At the same time, however, there is a huge level of anxiety from people and concern from people, particularly about their family and friends and their husbands, their brothers, their sons. So we've had a few queries about pets. Now, I don't know if you have a pet, A, but I do. And the idea of being told tomorrow, I'm leaving my house. And you're going to leave your country. And what would you do with your pet? And that - those are the ones that sort of strike through because that - people are having to leave at such short notice with only a bag. And those are the queries that really strike through and make the humanity of this situation come through, I suppose.

MARTINEZ: And what about psychological support?

HENDERSON: While we may be able to give some short-term support, and bearing in mind that Ireland's - rather like its housing crisis, we have a mental health crisis, indeed, I'd say, particularly after COVID. And our resources there are already under - already very stretched. It may be possible to get some people some short-term care, access to help lines and medication if they need it. But I think the long-term idea of psychological support and healing is, unfortunately, a long way off.

MARTINEZ: That's Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council. Nick, thank you very much.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.