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Home Far East March - April 2017 A Place of Welcome and Inclusion

A Place of Welcome and Inclusion

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columban centre1Claire Carey writes about the English classes offered by the Columban Centre in Dublin as a way of connecting with migrants, hearing their stories and helping them integrate into Irish society.

The Columban Centre opened its doors in Dublin's Store Street in July 2012 as a venue to showcase and share the Columban Mission priorities of justice, caring for creation and promoting interfaith dialogue. The Centre is a collaborative project for Columban Missionaries in Ireland and the core group working there are Sr Monica Kelly, Sr Lucia So and Columban co-workers Michael O'Sullivan and Claire Carey.

While the Columbans were newcomers on Store Street, we were not newcomers to the city centre. This initiative follows on from the Columban outreach to migrants which began at the beginning of the millennium. In 2001, a group of Columbans started the Migrants Rights Centre in the basement of the Stella Maris, helping newly arrived migrants with their employment problems. As the Migrants Rights Centre developed and moved on to a new office, the Columban Sisters remained in Stella Maris and continued the outreach to migrants under the name of Pilgrim Space. English classes began as a way of connecting with the migrants, hearing their stories and helping them integrate into Irish society. So while the Columban Centre is a venue for many aspects of Columban Mission in Ireland, the English classes are the backbone of our outreach to migrants.
All of us working in the Columban Centre know from our own overseas mission experiences what it was like to be strangers in a strange land. We have some understanding of the isolation and frustration involved when the ability to communicate is restricted and limited. So our aim is to provide a welcoming space where our students can share their stories as well as learning language with experienced teachers. We have classes four mornings a week and our volunteer teachers lead the students in a variety of English conversation and grammar classes.

columban centre2Our student base has varied over the years but they are mostly newly-arrived asylum-seekers and young migrants looking for work. However, more recently we are meeting older people who have come to Ireland to support members of their families who are raising young families and they are keen to be able to communicate with their grandchildren and in-laws. The list of countries that our students come from reads like the United Nations: Lithuania, Romania, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Poland, Czech Republic, Brazil, Venezuela to name but a few. Into the mix we also have a constant group of students from the places where Columbans have been on mission like China, Korea and the Philippines.

Most people find out about our classes by word of mouth and we are very conscious of the hardships and complications of their lives. We like to offer a warm welcome to new-comers and the style of teaching is conversational without being intrusive. We have learned from our students that they regard the Columban Centre as not just a place to learn English but a welcoming and supportive place in a strange city.

One student whose story stands out is Amina. She came to Ireland from a war-torn region of the Middle East with her young son who has physical and learning disabilities. After undertaking and surviving the very dangerous and arduous journey across land and sea, Amina arrived in Ireland a few years ago and became part of the asylum-seeking process. When she was finally given leave to stay in Ireland she was overjoyed to find a school where her child could begin his education and receive the necessary specialist health care. Finally Amina had time for herself in the mornings and so she has become a regular at our classes, always smiling, always happy to be with us. When I asked her about what the classes meant to her she said, "I love the English classes and my teachers are very kind and very helpful. I now have the confidence to talk with my neighbours and speak with the teachers."

columban centre3All the teachers comment on Amina's courage in having achieved what she has and in making a new life for herself and her family. One of the teachers said, "Hearing the student's stories and seeing them so keen to learn is life-affirming. We often hear such negative stories about migrants, and it is a privilege to meet them in person and hear their individual stories."

Those of us working in the Centre are affected by the way the classes can transform a shy new arrival into a friend who greets us each day with a lively "good morning" and then stops to talk about the weather. We see this as a definite sign of confidence and integration!
In the four years since we have opened our doors, many people ask us how long the students continue to come to class or if they stay in contact afterwards. We don't look at it that way. While we may miss the familiar faces, it is our hope that those who have moved on have found a new confidence in English and in themselves which has enabled them to find work and a new sense of belonging in Ireland. That is always our hope and our prayer for our students. •

Claire Carey is a former Columban Lay Missionary assigned to Korea. She has worked full-time with the Columbans for over 12 years in the areas of mission promotion and outreach. She is currently based in the Columban Centre Dublin.

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Missionaries -  we're just trying to match the generosity of those with whom we work and those who support us.

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