Are Ireland’s communities prepared to welcome more migrants? It’s challenging but there are great ideas out there that can make it easier. One of these ideas is Fàilte Isteach, free conversational English classes for migrants led by local volunteers that help migrants to improve their English skills and integrate into the community. There are already about 80 classes up and running around the country.
What makes Fàilte Isteach so popular? One of our most recent Fàilte Isteach starters put it like this:
What I like about Fàilte Isteach is that it’s not just about teaching English but really about building friendships with migrants that come to the community. Many refugees from Congo and migrants from Lithuania and Latviaher have been living in our community for about 6 years. The kids get along well but the parents often find it very difficult to feel at ease and learn the language. I’d like to help to change that.
Mairead Horkan has already built these friendships. About 90 refugees from Myanmar came to Ireland 8 years ago and some of these families came to Castlebar. The government put a structure in place to organise their arrival and help them to settle in. Part of these efforts was building a volunteer network in the area. Mairead became part of the network and joined the new Fàilte Isteach classes they set up in Castlebar. For Mairead it was a no brainer that she would help to make these migrants feel welcome.
We had a small welcome Christmas party for the refugees from Myanmar at the beginning. People donated presents and food. Musicians came along and played some Irish music. Later on we also supported the Karen to organise their own events and to celebrate their culture by helping them to find suitable premises for example.
Mairead thinks that it’s important that the government puts some structure in place first, but that people from the community and local groups also have to play a role. She also knows there are many sceptical voices about more migrants coming to Ireand and she understands the fear behind these voices, but she is sure that the country will be able to deal with it and decided to put herself into the refugees’ shoes:
These people are coming from conflict and uncertainty, they’ve seen family members being killed and lost their homes. All they’re looking for is safety while coming to a place they don’t know anything about. They don’t know if they’re welcome. We need to build that safety and trust for them and you only do that by getting involved, meeting people and by building relationships.
With the Karen families coming to Castlebar the challenge was different to the refugee situation now, says Mairead. They came from rural areas without any of the comforts of a modern society like electricity and running water.
Their English was very poor and they didn’t know things that we just take for granted, like how to use a shopping trolley. That’s certainly different with refugees coming from Syria today. So it’s important to figure out the needs of the refugees first together and what we, as volunteers in a community, can help with.
Mairead is sure, Ireland has the capacity to welcome more people and also the structure needed with many local groups and initiatives already active around Ireland.
Fàilte Isteach for a start, already has a huge network of people who have experience of starting free English classes and supporting migrants. We need to use this network and build a mentorship network so that communities across Ireland can support each other. We could also get existing groups together to help. Men’s Sheds, Fàilte Isteach groups, NGOs, just use all the organisations that are in the town, come together and see what each can do. ChangeX could probably help to organise that.
In Castlebar, the upcoming classes are already fully booked. Demand is still growing. If more people arrive, there will be a need for more volunteers and new classes, Mairead expects.
She emphasises how rewarding the work with Fàilte Isteach has been for her and how easy it is to get started once you’ve decided to make a small time commitment:
Fàilte Isteach is more about making a connection with people. What you need are social skills. You need to be happy to give some of your time to the community. Once it’s set up it really just takes the one or two hours a week that you spend at the class. I get so much more out of it than the time I spend volunteering. In fact, it’s really good craic and doesn’t feel like volunteering at all. Now, my life wouldn’t be the same without it.
If you think Fàilte Isteach could improve life for people in your community, you can get all the support you need to get started through ChangeX and with the help of Fàilte Isteach mentors. Learn more about how to start the free English class for migrants in your community.