Monica Lawless epitomises the term ‘multicultural’. She not only carrys four nationalities in her heart but also the desire to make her community in Ireland a place that’s open and welcoming to people from different nationalities, backgrounds and cultures.
Born and brought up in London, Monica moved to Ireland with her Irish husband 10 year ago, where they now live with their daughter. Her father is Italian, her mother Polish. â€œThey met in London. Dad moved over in his 20’s and worked in the hospitality industry and had been in London for a number of years before meeting mum. Mum also came over in her 20’s to initially learn English and subsequently got a job as a cleaner in the block of apartments dad where lived. It was funny how they met but it had an element of a fairytale storyâ€, Monica describes how her parents first met, with a warm smile on her face, one that is very familiar to her English students.
Monica is a Community Development Officer with the Blanchardstown Area Partnership (BAP) a local development company for the Fingal area. This is where the pilot programme was first set up in 2009 and launched by the then President Mary McAleese in 2010 under the umbrella organisation Fàilte Isteach. It provided one of the first free English classes for migrants in the country. It rolled out to more areas in Dublin 15 â€“ Mountview and Tyrrelstown in 2010/2011 and eventually across the country.
Here Monica meets people that are maybe just like her parents once were. People who are trying to learn a foreign language, to find their place in a new country that seems so alien. Monica understands what it means to get the chance to build up confidence and competence in a foreign language in a friendly environment and she loves playing a role in that..
People from 22 nationalities come to the classes regularly, many of them hail from Eastern European countries like Poland, Lithuania, Romania, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and Hong Kong. Monica can speak to some of them in their mother tongue, but that’s of course not how the Fàilte Isteach concept works. It’s all about breaking through the barrier of daring to speak up in a foreign language. Everyone knows the feeling, the fear â€“ standing in front of the counter at a foreign train station trying to verbalise the words the phrasebook suggests for this situation.
Blanchardstown Area Partnership is based in the middle of a business area in Dublin 15. The atmosphere might not seem very charming at first glance when entering the building. Green carpets, flickering LED light, but once the classes start it’s just the background to open and friendly chatter and you can tell that people here are working hard to create an open and inviting setting for the students.
Monica remembers the start of the classes in 2009 well.
It all started as an experiment, as a pilot. But then it really took off with legs of its own. That was a total surprise. It was totally chaotic at the beginning. We just had one room but realised this wasn’t feasible for the number of people turning up. 50-60 people would come every week. We knew we needed more space and thankfully availed of other rooms in BAP.
At the start of each class people sit together in a large circle and a theme is picked every week such as ‘what’s your favourite colour’ the reason being it gets them comfortable speaking out loud in a group and getting to know each other. It also needs to be a topic that is suitable for all levels of English. They then break up into different rooms and different groups with the volunteer tutors, depending on their level of English. We have groups of beginner, elementary, lower intermediate and upper intermediate. Most of the people coming to the classes here are unemployed and don’t get the chance to improve their English in their daily lives.
Without Fàilte Isteach, people would feel a lot more isolated.. They meet friends, hear what else is happening in the community and feel a part of it. It opens up their eyes to what is happening in the Dublin 15 area. They feel at ease over here. They often feel their English isn’t good but here they get a sense of comfort and can improve their English in a relaxed environment.
There are 9 volunteer tutors currently helping out in BAP; retired lawyers, retired teachers, grandmothers/grandfathers . Everyone has their own style of teaching. Some choose a more traditional way, others just sit together and have a conversation, whatever volunteers and students prefer. The teachers aim to meet the needs of their students and just help them to get along better in their daily lives.
We do a lot of role play about simple daily tasks like going to the doctor or to a shop. We create nice little stories of daily life, very practical things of what they need to know. When you get stuck, what happens quite often in beginner classes, you just start to draw or use pictures. For example you may draw the family tree â€“ getting them familiar with words like niece, nephew, auntie, uncle etc.
Monica herself doesn’t teach anymore although she really enjoyed it.
I now have a good number of tutors who teach. But I always found it very rewarding, you can really make the classes fun as well as providing basic language support in a practical, welcoming and inclusive way. I really miss it now. It gives you a sense of achievement.
One of my students, Vasile, a Lithuanian man, came to the class with no English at all in 2009. He came in religiously every single week together with his friend to translate. As time went on his friend stopped coming to translate and Vasile tried on his own and even though his English didn’t improve drastically, his confidence just shone through. He always tried and he wasn’t scared anymore to ask and get his point across. It was so fantastic to see.
Another participant, Andreea from Romania came to the classes to learn English in 2009, now she is one of the volunteer tutors.
She can explain the nitty gritty of the English language maybe better than any other volunteer in the group because she has gone through the difficulties herself.
Setting up the classes in the beginning wasn’t difficult at all, Monica recalls.
Failte Isteach was amazing. They provide training for the teachers, come in for the first few classes, help set it all up and they provide learning materials. That’s basically all you need to set up a class.
For people starting it independently from an existing community centre, the biggest challenges are finding the right venue and very practical things like access to a printer, pens, paper. But once that’s set, anyone can lead this programme.
Monica lives just five minutes down the road from work in Blanchardstown.
I love the diversity of this area and that it’s so well serviced, it has a lot of community centres and community initiatives. But, when I first moved here I worked in the city centre and wasn’t involved or up to speed about all that went on in Dublin 15. When I started working in Blanchardstown I found out more. There’s so much depending on where your interests lie… In BAP we run initiatives such as the Men’s Shed, Healthy Food Made Easy, Parents Plus Early Years Programme, Social Media for Jobseekers, ESOL courses.
It’s important for Monica to not just teach people English but to give them a feeling of belonging also and to show them the opportunities to get socially engaged in the communities. That’s why the tea breaks are maybe more important than the classes themselves.
In the tea break everyone gets to know each other. They’re all very happy to be here.
But for everyone, this comes to an end at some point.
We had to set a limit of one year for attending our classes as the demand was so high. I take 30 students at a time.. It’s always a very sad time for me when it comes to the end of the year because people often want to keep coming. It’s their social anchor. They have formed that bond, feel they have improved a lot, it’s all very familiar to them here. But by then, they have the confidence to go out and build on that. Some have progressed onto other mainstream courses while others have found employment . I see some of my past students around the area and they often thank me saying ‘You helped me with that first step and to find a place here when at first I didn’t think I could ever speak to anyone’. That makes me very happy and proud of this work.
If you’d be interested in starting a Fàilte Isteach group in your own community or would like to help as a volunteer teacher at a class near you, you can find all the information you need on our Fàilte Isteach ChangeX page.