As Ireland prepares give shelter to some 3,500 refugees from the Middle East and Africa, Edwin McGreal travelled to our most cosmopolitan town to see what we can learn about integration from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo
When Manar Cherbatji, a Syrian Muslim, first came to Ballyhaunis in 1988, many people looked at her head-scarf and asked if was she a nun.
It was a comment of its time but in a radically changing ethnic landscape in Ireland, fewer places are as multicultural in 2015 as Ballyhaunis.
In fact, according to the 2011 Census, no where else is. Welcome to Ireland’s most cosmopolitan town.
The latest figures show that ‘white Irish’ people in the town account for just 40% of the town’s population. Only 92 out of 322 pupils (28.57%) in the local national school, Scoil Íosa, are of white Irish background.
Just how has this small, rural town in east Mayo become such a diverse locale? And what can it teach the rest of the country ahead of a likely increase in the number of refugees in the coming months?
First off, Pakistani and Syrian nationals first arrived in the town in the 1970s and 1980s to set up and work in meat companies. A surge of economic migrants from Eastern Europe followed in more recent years. And then there are hundreds of asylum seekers living in the direct provision centre in the town’s old convent.
Natalya Pestova works with residents in the direct provision centre through her work with the Mayo Intercultural Action (MIA) agency.
The lack of comprehensive cultural and language orientation for newcomers is one of her bugbears as is anger that some residents have been waiting for up to 10 years for their application to be processed.
Children in the direct provision centre can also feel isolated from the children living around them because they go to rural schools outside the town, she says. The town school is full.
“They don’t know kids in Ballyhaunis and that cuts them off further and gives them much less of a chance to assimilate locally than if they were in the town school,” said Pestova.
Language has proven a significant barrier to integration among the wider new population.
Kenneth Dennedy, principal of Scoil Íosa NS in the town, attests to this. Conversing with parents about their children can be problematic.
The younger the children start school here, the faster they catch up. So what’s there for older children? A lack of learning support for new children in both Scoil Íosa and Ballyhaunis Community School is a problem. In 2009 when they had 64 less pupils, Scoil Íosa had two more teachers.
It is clear from a walk around Scoil Íosa that the children mix freely and easily, irrespective of ethnicity. There are 20 different nationalities in the school but the kids are oblivious.
“It [integration] comes naturally to them,” says Dennedy and children’s birthday parties in the town can be very multicultural gatherings.
Ballyhaunis GAA has been at the forefront of helping immigrants and asylum seekers to bed down in their new home. An integration day during the summer was a huge success and in a town like Ballyhaunis with much less social amenities than larger towns or cities, the role the club plays has been magnified.
Pakistani names have featured on Ballyhaunis hurling teams for over two decades. There are eastern European and Syrian names on the Ballyhaunis soccer team while the recently established Ballyhaunis Cricket Club is a strong outlet for members of the Muslim community.
There will always be cultural differences between people from different countries and there will be a natural sense of comfort in your culture of origin, locals and new arrivals point out. But it cuts both ways and talking to people off the record, there’s a sense that more should be done to bridge the gap between locals and the new Ballyhaunis population.
Fr Stephen Farragher has suggested a cross-cultural forum while support is growing for a full-time officer to cement links between the town’s old and new populations.
Natalya Pestova says progress is being made by organisations but argues for a more co-ordinated approach, particularly embracing residents in direct provision.
When the last programmed refugees came to Ireland, they had an integration programme in a separate facility in Ballyhaunis. Therese Ruane of MIA said it worked well in assimilating new people to the country. Such support is lacking, and badly needed, for the more recent asylum seekers in Ballyhaunis, she argues.
But large numbers of immigrants can lead to unease. There’s a conviction among some in the town that Ballyhaunis has taken more than its fair share of refugees and asylum seekers. A recent meeting of the town’s Parish Council saw members air that view.
It’s important to remember though that the need for integration is but one of the its struggles. Ballyhaunis saw a 38% surge in its population from 2006 to 2011. This immigrant-driven hike hides the exodus of thousands of the town’s youth due to a lack of graduate employment.
“We always knew that once the girls were finished education there wouldn’t be a future for them in Ballyhaunis,” says Mary Donnelly, with acceptance in her voice. Her four daughterswere all forced to move from the west of Ireland.
In that sense, despite its diversity, Ballyhaunis is, similar to most west of Ireland towns.
The Syrian immigrant: Manar Cherbatji
Ballyhaunis Tidy Towns and Ballyhaunis Community Council: Mary Donnelly
Ballyhaunis Community School Principal: David McDonagh
Parish priest: Fr Stephen Farragher
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