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Wesley O'Brien in the Usivak Refugee Camp.

Wesley serving smiles to lighten load for refugees in camps

Champion Chatter

A KILLALOE tennis coach is continuing his drive to bring a smile to the faces of refugees who are living in camps in a bid to secure a better life.

Wesley O’Brien recently returned from his sixth overseas trip and his fourth “Hit and Hope” programme in a third country, which included one in Turkey, two in Greece and one in Bosnia.

Having flown into Sarajevo, Wesley completed a full week of tennis classes at Usivak Refugee Camp, which is a temporary reception area for refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

Most of the refugees who are hoping to travel to one of the wealthier European countries such as the United Kingdom stay, on average, in the camp for a week or two.

One of the distinguishing features of this camp is the exclusion of single men as its accommodates children from the age of three in families of all age groups. In total, the camp caters for about 800 people.

Wesley said single men are looked after in their own separate camp about two miles away.

He received great assistance from the local non-government organisation, A Drop In The Ocean, which advertised his three-hour daily tennis camp, which was split into children from 2 to 3pm, women from 3 to 4pm and married men from 4 to 5pm.

Between 25 and 30 residents in the camp enjoyed learning how to play tennis on a daily basis. This sport was totally new to the refugees who had never held a tennis racquet previously.

“I gave the refugees simple instructions on how to hit the tennis ball over the net. A lot of the non government organisations were helping refugees with some of the items. Some of the staff took a break from their work to play tennis.

“The whole camp got involved, which was brilliant. Playing tennis gives the refugees a break. It is about giving the refugees who are in a desperate situation a bit of hope for a better life.

“Refugees can have their dark times and dark days. Tennis helps to get them out of their cabins. Walking past their accommodation, you could see nine bunks beds in one portacabin when the door was open. Everyone was pretty much living on top of one another.

“Some of them are very happy people but they have to have some hope things will improve after the camp. Sport has a great way of bringing people together. The tennis sessions are all about bringing a bit of joy and fun into the lives of refugees.”

Having visited a few refugee camps, Wesley has found some refugees who want to gain access to a country can be forced to wait between one and two years for their passport and paperwork to be finalised, while others can’t afford to wait and have to take a chance of travelling illegally in to a country.

For those who oppose any refugees coming into their country regardless of their paperwork, Wesley suggested they should volunteer to accompany him on one of his overseas tennis trips.

“When you visit a refugee camp, you can see the human aspect. People who don’t want any refugees can talk about the economy, funding and other costs, but they don’t see the human side of it. When you go into a refugee camp, you see a human being standing in front of you,”

The International Organisation of Migrants ensured all residents in Usivak were provided with a daily lunch and dinner in contrast to some other camps that Wesley visited where people had to more or less fend for themselves.

Some of the charitable organisations set up a drop in area for teenagers where they can take turns on a play station, read books and play chess from 11am to 4pm.

Following his return to Killaloe, Wesley keeps in touch with residents in Usivak and sent over another bag of 60 tennis balls to ensure they could continue playing this sport.

Meanwhile, Wesley continues to teach tennis for people who are visually impaired.

On Sunday, he resumed another six-week stint of blind tennis sessions for juniors between 2pm to 3pm and seniors from 3pm to 4.15pm in St Anne’s Community College, Killaloe.

Wesley coached two visually impaired women and encouraged them to participate in a blind tennis friendly tournament in Poland, with an individual goal of winning one match.

Siobhan Kelly, who lives in Ogonnelloe, scored her first competitive match win in international blind tennis at Gdansk, Poland.

She represented Enjoy Tennis Ireland and Tennis Ireland with pride. Ms Kelly started playing tennis eight months ago.

Anyone who wishes to make a donation can log on to “Hit and Hope” at www.idonate.ie

About Dan Danaher

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