Donal O’Keeffe travelled to Longford to meet Aaram and Meryam, a Muslim couple subjected recently to anti-immigrant abuse, who are delighted that so many people have visited their shop to tell them they are welcome in Ireland.
I drove up to Longford last week, on the Bank Holiday Monday, and I called into a shop called ‘Organic’ on Great Water Street.
There’s a shop like it in most Irish towns, with adverts on the windows for Lyca Mobile, and pictures of cuts of meat, and soft drinks, accompanied by script in languages I don’t understand.
Places like ‘Organic’ always remind me of shops I used to see in North London when I lived there years ago, little homes-from-home, unofficial embassies where you could get Barry’s Tea, or Tayto crisps, or TK Red Lemonade, or local papers like the Mayo News, or Kerry’s Eye, or the Longford Leader, or just have a chat with people from home.
Longford is a beautiful town, and while I was there, I took a stroll around. It’s a vibrant, friendly place. The recently restored St Mel’s Cathedral is a wonder to behold. I bought a copy of the Longford Leader, and read it over a delicious meal in ‘Spice India’ on Main Street.
Stepping into ‘Organic’, I met Aaram and Meryam. They own the shop, and Aaram was recently subjected to an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim tirade, which was filmed and then posted online. In the video, Aaram, a gentle, humble man, is asked aggressively whether good Muslims have to see Christians as infidels. It’s a disgusting display of cruelty.
Aaram and Meryam’s shop was very busy when I called, and full of smiling faces, as people prepared for Eid al-Fitr. Eid marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
Aaram and Meryam told me they are overwhelmed by the kindness of Irish people of all creeds and none – Irish people by birth and Irish people by love of Ireland – who have travelled the length and breadth of the country to tell them they are welcome in our shared home.
“We are famous!” Meryam said, with a wry laugh.
Aaram, a British citizen from Iraq, told me he and Meryam moved to Ireland six years ago. Their four-year-old son was born here. Aaram became visibly upset at the memory of being abused in his shop, and he told me people who are full of hatred scare him.
“I have seen what hatred does to people, to countries. I have seen the war that comes from hatred. I love Ireland. Our life is here, and we have no time for hatred.”
Aaram’s wife, Meryam, is from Morocco and has applied for Irish citizenship, and she told me her religion teaches kindness, and she and her family have been met overwhelmingly with kindness in Ireland.
“Irish people have been my friends since I came here. When my baby was born, Irish people have been like my family to me.
“If someone does something wrong, we cannot judge all the people for that. If bad people say they do wrong in the name of my religion, please do not judge me by that. Those people do not speak for me, and they do not speak for my religion. Just as, if bad people in Ireland are unkind, I would be foolish to hate all Irish people.”
Meryam, a woman of intelligence and decency, told me she believes nobody should force their opinions on anyone, and said she wears a hijab by choice and thinks no less of women who don’t. She said allowing choice is as important as having respect for people.
Aaram said they cannot believe all the new friends they have met in the time since they were attacked. “I have people travel from Dublin, from Cork, from Galway, from all parts of Ireland, to say this woman [who confronted him] does not speak for them.”
Aaram told me he has been very worried that further incidents, perhaps violent, may follow. He said he went to the Gardaí and found them very kind and helpful, but some friends have warned him that worse abuse may follow. Aaram said he is afraid that maybe his home may be burnt out. He said he doesn’t care for himself, but he worries for his family.
Aram became emotional as he told me his son is starting primary school in September. The little boy was sitting behind the till, and talking to a spider which may or may not have been on the window, saying “You have to go to bed now, Mr Spider”.
Pointing to his son, Aaram had tears in his eyes as he said to me: “Look at that beautiful little child. If you hate me, because of my skin, or my religion, or where I was born, then you hate him too. He is an Irish child. How could you hate my child?”
(I confess I was highly unprofessional, and became quite emotional myself at this, and told Aaram that he and his family are very welcome in Ireland, that we are richer as a country for their being here, and that I know I speak for the vast majority of Irish people when I say that.)
As I was leaving the shop, I asked if there was anything I could do for Meryam and Aaram. Meryam told me they want to say “Thank you” to everyone who has been kind to them, and she asked that I tell as many people as I can.
As I left, Aaram and Meryam gave me an Eid gift of spices, breads, cereals and biscuits, and a sweet drink for the drive home, although Aaram worried that water might be better for me.
“Friendship is not about skin colour, or clothes, or religion,” Meryam told me, “It is about people, and kindness.”
On Twitter all week, people spoke of visiting ‘Organic’, and of their desire to apologise to Aaram and Meryam, and to tell them how welcome they are.
This is our Ireland. We need to get serious about our auld plámás about being “the land of a hundred thousand welcomes”.
This is our Ireland. Let’s tell the racists, the bullies and the hatemongers that they don’t speak for us.
This is our Ireland. Let’s give a hundred thousand welcomes to people of good-will, people of kindness, and people who want to make our Ireland a better place, whether they are Irish by birth or Irish by love of Ireland.