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Saturday, December 10, 2016
Irish Travellers in Essex
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 Irish Travellers are one of the smallest ethnic groups in the UK. At any one time, more than 20% are homeless. Most are unable to read or write. The life expectancy of a Traveller is 20 years lower than the national average. One person who works with them is La Sainte Union Sister Catherine Reilly. Based in Wickford, Essex, she goes out each day to visit the Traveller sites in the area - which has one of the largest concentrations of Travellers and Gypsies in the country. Sr Catherine has befriended many families. She runs Confirmation and First Communion programmes, organises healthy cookery classes, and helps them deal with legal, school and health problems. She said: I don't know how long Travellers have been in England. They might have come over first during the Famine. In Ireland and here to begin with, many used to sleep by the side of the road. Farmers would give them bales of hay to keep warm under at night. Then they got their horses and caravans - they are very few of these left in Ireland these days. Now they have trailers and they sometimes try to build little chalets. The Travellers find it hard being in a house or flat. Those who do 'settle' say they miss the sounds of the birds and wind and rain on the roof. If a Traveller has to stay in hospital they are very unhappy. Sr Catherine said one young girl, who had cystic fibrosis and eventually died, would regularly vanish from her hospital bed each night and then reappear in it the next morning. She said: "I'm sure the family took her home each each night." Travellers in rural areas are often the target of abuse and blamed for everything from flytipping to petty crime. Some do misbehave, but Sr Catherine says the majority are law-abiding and highly religious. She said: "If only they had more transit sites they'd have no trouble at all. because there are so few places to stay legally, Travellers round here often buy land from farmers that is green belt and then get evicted by the authorities when they try to build on it. "Their life is so difficult. I always say they are like swallows. Wherever they go, they eventually come home again. But people don't want them to have a home." When a Traveller dies, the family always take the body back to Ireland for burial. Sr Catherine said: "They treat their old people with such respect. You would never find them putting someone in a home." Travellers are very shy of doctors and social workers, she said, and often the caring professions are nervous of them as well. She said: "A few months ago there was an outbreak of meningitis at Crays Hill, an old scrap yard which is currently home to more than 1,000 people in 60 trailers or small chalets. Sr Catherine is hoping one day to get a clinic on the site. She said: "The doctor wouldn't go to visit unless I went with her. The Travellers and the Gypsies who live in the camp next door were very suspicious and didn't want their children to be vaccinated." "These people adore their children. But few of the youngsters get much of an education. They are on the move so much and schools don't like having Traveller children staying for a short time. Sr Catherine said she would like to see Literacy classes on Traveller sites. "If they had some education it would really help them get work and integrate better with the community" she said. "Whereever these people go they face discrimination" she said. "Many pubs round here won't allow them in - or if they do they are very unfriendly. Travellers are told they can only have one drink and then asked to go. That's actually against the law." "The conditions these people are forced to live in are very bad" she said. "Many families have to move every few days." "Recently a group of 50 Travellers parked their caravans in an old deserted factory. I went to visit them there. It was a dreadful place. Broken pipes and wires everywhere. They stayed for a week. One day the council came and blocked off the gate. They had to phone the fire brigade to get it open. If there had been a fire they would have all been trapped. Then the council came and chucked them out with hardly any notice. It reminds me of the way the old South African regime treated people in the black townships during the days of Apartheid." Sr Catherine says the Traveller families she works with are very devout Catholics. "At the daily Mass each morning there are usually several of them there. Many of the trailers are full of religious pictures and several have statues of Our Lady outside them. "I think it is their faith that keeps them going. I am always so impressed with the charitable way they speak about those who treat them so badly." "They are also very hospitable and generous. Each time I visit I'm offered tea and meals and they always want to give me a lift home. They've also welcomed Roma asylum seekers and given them work and trailers to live in." 'When a girl in our parish started washing cars in order to raise money to go to Lourdes as a helper, they passed a hat round on the site and raised £1,100 for her. When a group at a wedding noticed the church roof was leaking, they paid for its repair. "Every time there is an appeal for Bosnia or Romania or somewhere in Africa they make a large donation." Sr Catherine said many Travellers often fast and pray - particularly if someone is sick. Each year they go on pilgrimage to Knock, Holywell, Fatima, Walsingham, Medjugorie and other shrines. During the interview she filled out several application forms for new babies who are going to visiting Lourdes for the first time this year. She said: "I'm always amazed how the Travellers get from place to place - especially in Europe. Most of them can't read maps or signs - they ask people the way. They are very good at picking up spoken languages. " Part of the site at Cray's Hill has no planning permission and Sr Catherine said she concerned that the council may soon try to evict the families there. "They have very little support from the local community" she said. "Partly because most people just don't know about them. And partly because they get so much adverse publicity in the local press. If anything goes wrong the Travellers are blamed." Sr Catherine said she has been taking parishioners from the church of Our Lady of Good Council to visit the families - and when they meet them they are always impressed by the spotless caravans and the warm welcome they receive. Whatever happens, Sr Catherine says: "I'm staying put. I'm going to be with them wherever they are. If the bulldozers come in I'll sit on the ground in front of them." The Bishop of Brentwood, the Rt Rev Thomas McMahon visits a different Travellers site in his diocese each year. Following a recent visit to Cray's Hill he echoed Sr Catherine's view - telling the press he believed local authorities had a responsibility to provide more permanent sites for travellers, because he felt this would help them find work and get their children settled into local schools. He said: "I think the problem of social exclusion arises when there are not enough permanent sites. They tend to set up camp wherever they want. This has a knock-on effect on finding work and sending their children to school." He said every time he visits a site he gets a very warm reception. "The people are very pleased that I have come to visit them. Many of them are Roman Catholic and attend their local church. Councils in the area would not answer the bishop's call for more permanent sites. A spokesman for Basildon Council said: "The council provides for the largest population of travellers in the district and we also have more than 100 authorised sites for them - more than any other district. Problems arise from time to time because of shortages of suitable and non green belt land. A spokesman for Southend Borough Council said: "Southend currently has no designated Traveller sites as there are no appropriate areas - given the intensely built up nature of the borough." Currently just one Travellers site in all of England has a nursery, health and training facilities - The Westway - a group of 20 caravans huddled underneath a huge motorway flyover in West London. The services are all run by the Catholic Children's Society and Westminster Council. Community leader Tom Sweeney, who has lived on the Westway for 14 years, is a member of the Coalition of Gypsies and Travellers, and has been campaigning for better conditions locally and nationally for both communities. He wants to see more sites with better amenities and education facilities. Sweeney said: "In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act abolished the duty imposed by the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, for local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers. "The January 2003 local authority figures show that more than 21% of the Traveller population are technically homeless, without an authorised place to stop." "Together with a number of MPs, we are promoting the Traveller Law Reform Bill which calls on the government to provide more Travellers' sites. The Select Committee of the ODPM has proposed that the government introduce a statutory duty to provide or facilitate sites. The Institute for Public Research has produced a public consultation paper: 'Moving Forward' which suggests bringing this back as a statutory duty on local authorities." "At present, it seems Travellers are falling through the net with regard to housing provision. If they are considered homeless, local authorities will place them in temporary accommodation while they wait to be housed. But many who want to remain in their caravans are forced to keep on the move. The first major piece of legislation concerning Travellers was a last-minute amendment to the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, giving local authorities fast track eviction powers. "They are hoping we are going to go away" said Sweeney. "But we can't. As families have children there is nowhere for them to go - except into the community where they are forced to give up our way of life." Gypsies and Travellers are soon going to have their first official patron saint. Recently Pope John Paul II beatified Ceferino Giménez Malla, a Secular Franciscan Gypsy who died for his faith in 1936. Blessed Ceferino Giménez Malla was born in Fraga, Spain in 1861. He had a successful business, buying and selling horses. Ceferino and his wife had no children though they adopted one of his wife's nieces. He attended Mass frequently and joined the Secular Franciscan Order. Always generous to the poor, he was known as a reconciler among Gypsies. During the Spanish Civil War, he was arrested for defending a priest who had been dragged through the streets of Barbastro and for having a rosary. As the firing squad prepared to kill him, Ceferino clutched his rosary and cried out, "Viva Cristo Rey!" (Long live Christ the King!) When he was beatified in 1997, thousands of Gypsies and Travellers from all over Europe attended the ceremony at St Peter's. At Ceferino's beatification, Pope John Paul II said: "His life shows how Christ is present in the various peoples and races, and that all are called to holiness which is attained by keeping his commandments and remaining in his love (John 15:11)" (L'Osservatore Romano 1997. Sr Catherine said: "When we ignore the Travellers we forget that the Holy Family also had no home when Jesus was born. We have much to learn from these people who have taken to heart Jesus' advice to his disciples to travel light without a spare cloak or sandals. This article was first published in Bible Alive magazine
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