Montserrat's refugees say it's hard to celebrate

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The Independent Online
Monsterrat used to be the place to go for a typical Caribbean Christmas. Now, the capital, Plymouth, where a big Christmas tree used to light up the picturesque harbour, has been destroyed by volcanic eruptions. Phil Davison says it is not easy for the remaining islanders to celebrate, but the seasonal spirit is not dead.

As always, Joseph, 57 and Helen, 59 will wake up on camp beds on a cold stone floor alongside the old baptism font in the Anglican church of St. Peter's tomorrow. They will hitch a lift to their own pentecostal church for a Christmas service and return to St Peter's, a refugee shelter for volcano victims, for a Christmas dinner of goatwater, a stew handed down by Montserrat's Irish settlers, rice and bananas.

The Hallorans have lived in the church for six months, since the biggest eruption of the Soufriere Hills in June, along with 30 other elderly refugees. The pews have been arranged to divide each family's space, with hospital- style standing curtains to provide a minimum of privacy.

Chickens and goats wander in and out of the open front and back doors and through the untended, knee-length grass between the old gravestones outside, where refugee women scrub and dry their laundry. The church's old outside toilet serves all 30 and the kitchens are three wooden shacks built between the graves. With only domestic electric fires for heating, it is bitterly cold at night.

"[Volcanic] ash mashed up our house on the other side of the Belham Valley," said Joseph, a former lorry driver and gardener also known by many of his friends as James. "They came here and said we could have homes but offered us only a wooden one. That's useless. Our country gets hurricanes every year. The roof would blow off just like that. This church was built to withstand hurricanes."

"They've built new stone houses as refugee homes," added Helen, "but they're asking rent of 150 EC [East Caribbean] dollars a month." That's around pounds 40 but a lot of money to the Hallorans, who each receive only pounds 35 a month in food vouchers as refugee assistance. Their home, in a new- evacuated and unsafe zone, was all they had.

Beside the old baptism font, Joseph keeps one remaining possession, a garden water pump, his pride and joy. "We used to have a lovely garden. I'm keeping the pump until we get another," he said. "We want to get out of here but we just don't have the money," added Helen. "Some of the others use terrible bad language. The great joy of Christmas is not here."

In another shelter, a former school, only a few yards inside the current "safe zone" near the village of Salem, Montserrat's one white refugee, American Tom Mowry, 63, is slightly better off. He has a stone-floored room to himself and the furniture he was able to get from his abandoned condominium during a quiet moment between volcanic eruptions. His valuables had been looted by robbers who must have slipped into the evacuated zone.

He may be slightly better off, but not much. He and his neighbours, some as old as 90, had had no running water for four days. The showers are of corrugated iron, outside, 30 yards or more from the shelter. "We had to put the doors on ourselves," said Mr Mowry.

Mr Mowry is a retired psychologist and Korean war veteran who has worked around the world for world organisations including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Somalia. "Now I can see the other side at first hand," he told me. His pounds 45,000 condominium outside Plymouth is covered in ash and now totally out of bounds. "If you tried to get back in there and there was a pyroclastic flow [an avalanche of red hot ash, gas and rock], you'd be a crispy critter pretty quickly," he noted.

"Three years ago, Christmas was idyllic here.This year, I'll probably slam my door and ignore it." he said. "We're not really living. We're making time. It's tragic. These people [his fellow refugees] were teachers, doctors, civil servants. It's tragic."

Did he really have to be here? "I have no place else to go," he insisted. "I travelled all my life and have no home in the US. I only get EC$200 a month here. I'm convinced the hidden agenda is for every one to leave. At some point, it will no longer be viable. But I wouldn't be eligible to get to Britain. I'd have to find a way to get back to the States."

Back in St Peter's Anglican church, Joseph and Helen agree. "I think they [Britain] would be happier if everyone left the island," said Joseph. "Our island has no oil, no gold. It's easy for they get rid of us."

Despite their plight, they have not lost their faith. As I left, the Hallorans led the other refugees, accompanied by a guitar, in belting out hymns. The volcano's destruction forgotten for a moment, they sang: "Oh Lord, my God, when I, in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hand hath made... How great Thou art."