I have just completed my third day at my placement, the Social Work Team for Separated Children, a small group that deals with all minors who arrive in Ireland without an appropriate guardian. This is a formidable task considering that typically upward of 100 of these separated children arrive in the country each year. For each and every child, the team finds a place to live, either a house with other separated children or a foster family, helps to prepare them for schooling in Irish schools, and facilitates the process of application for refugee status.

The team is guided by the principles that each young person is a child first and a migrant second, and that the young people deserve care and opportunity equal to that of Irish children. Already in my first few days with the group, I have seen that the social workers stick to these principles unwaveringly. They do this not because they are always reminding themselves of these principles, but rather because they genuinely care about each young person, and so putting the child first comes naturally. Already I have seen several social workers moved by powerful emotion as they fight to give the young people they work with the best that they can.

One social worker I have spent time with, Rick, told me about the Calais refugee encampment in France. When this encampment, sometimes called the Calais Jungle, was dismantled in 2016, it was discovered that more than a thousand unaccompanied minors had been living there. Ireland generously committed to help, but as of yet the team has been able to take in just over 40 of these separated children.

This reflects Ireland’s role during the European refugee crisis in general. It is a small country with limited resources, so although it can alleviate some pressure, it is not able to take in as many refugees as other European countries, some of which have needed to accept many thousands.

It could be instinctive to conclude, then, that Ireland is not making much of a difference in the grand scheme of the crisis. This is not the only way to look at the situation, though. Rick, referring to Calais, made a comment that stands out in my mind. He noted that while Ireland may not be able to take a large percentage of the separated children from the camp, to each young person taken in it means everything.

Herein lies an issue of magnitude. We tend to think that big impact must be statistical, relating to many individuals’ lives. However, a single person’s life is everything to them. So, when one person’s life is completely altered, how can we call this change small? This is one of those fascinating ideas that is totally obvious even as it is hard to comprehend. There is a critical tension between doing some for a large number of people and doing a great deal for a few, and it is for us to decide whether one of these doesn’t devote greater respect to the complexity of each person’s needs. This is not to say that we need not strive to change many people’s lives, but rather to emphasize the power of focusing our energy on doing good for individuals.

Doing individual good is exactly what this team is best at. In accordance with the team’s guiding principles, each young person is treated as an individual human with unique needs. Bit by bit, this individual good accumulates to something truly special, and through its child-first and equitable approach, the Irish program has been recognized across Europe for its quality.

I look forward eagerly to the weeks ahead with this team.