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Embracing our newcomers


THE BEAT GOES ON Students and refugees during a drumming session at GMIT Mayo Campus, Castlebar as part of the day of activities for refugees and asylum seekers. Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Anton McNulty

“That is what it is all about, putting smiles on faces,” GMIT student Michelle Ryan explained as dozens of young refugees and asylum seekers laughed and played without a care in the world.
But it was not just little children who were laughing and smiling in GMIT’s Castlebar campus last week, with adults ranging in age from teenagers to grandparents, taking part in numerous events in the campus’s first Integration Event Day.
Organised by the Mayo Green Campus Society in GMIT, the day involved inviting refugees and asylum seekers living in the local area to come to the Mayo Campus for an afternoon of activities.
The activities on show ranged from football, basketball, table tennis and archery (which was particularly popular with all age groups) to chess, rock climbing, English classes and parent and toddler play areas. The activities were arranged by the different societies and clubs in the campus, with students volunteering to show them the ropes.   
The asylum seekers and refugees included those living in the direct provision centre in Ballyhaunis and the Syrian refugee centre in Ballaghaderreen.
Third-year Applied Social Care student, Michelle Ryan, was one of the main organisers of the event and said it was about getting the refugees and asylum seekers out of their accommodation for a while and hopefully involving them in different activities.
“They look like they are all enjoying themselves,” Michelle said, delighted with how the event was going, as she gave me a tour around the campus to the different activity areas.
“They all seem to be getting involved in the different activities and giving them a go. It is great to see the different age groups turn up and enjoying themselves and meeting new people,” she enthused.
This is not the first time students from the Castlebar campus have given their time to help refugees. Last year the Mayo Green Campus Society volunteered to help design and build an Outdoor Play Area in a refugee centre in Ballaghaderreen.

While the project was modest, Davy Walsh, a social-care lecturer in GMIT, said it opened up possibilities for what the Mayo Green Campus could do in the future.
“This is a continuation of reaching out to the wider community to integrate and embrace the different cultures and people who are coming to Mayo,” he said, while adding they were successful in receiving funding from the Department of Justice, who were looking for organisations to run Community Integration events.
“You can see the amount of volunteers and students here today is really incredible, the students are driving most of it. They have taken over, which is exactly what we wanted them to do. We are asking students to participate in activities … and hopefully the students will also begin to understand the issues which are facing other people. It is about creating a shared experience between people and shared ideas. Both groups will get a lot out of it,” he said.
As well as the recent Integration Day, the society also plans to organise more events in the future to help refugees and asylum seekers in seeking access to all tiers of education.

‘Great idea’
One of the participants in the events was 18-year-old Rabeh Mosa, who is originally from Homs in Syria, but is now living in Castlebar. He arrived in Ireland one year ago with no English but is now studying in Youth Reach in Castlebar.
“I am having a great day,” he said, after trying out some archery. “It is a great idea to organise this as I am able to meet new people and enjoy myself. I came to Ireland with my family and I had no English when I arrived but I am learning. I am enjoying life in Ireland … life is better here, better than war.”
Like Rabeh many of the participants in the day’s events travelled thousands of miles, escaping war in Syria before being resettled in the west of Ireland.
Debbie Beirne runs an organisation called Ruach Rhythms, and works through music with the Syrian refugees in their centre in Ballaghaderreen.
Some of the major problems they face is the language barrier with very few able to speak English, and the delay in rehousing them from the former Abbeyfield Hotel, which is their home in Ballaghaderreen. However, Debbie does believe that there is support for the refugees in the community and that with the help of the GMIT students and others, integration will become easier.
“Days like today are really powerful because number one, it gets them out of the hotel and two, it gets them meeting the other Syrian families, and three, they meet the other students. There is a buzz of activity and a real level of engagement and you can see they are really excited.
“It gives them an idea of campus life, and we care lucky to have one so close in Castlebar. They all think they have to go to college in Dublin to study, but here we can say you don’t have to go to Dublin, there are good campuses all around Ireland and GMIT Castlebar is one of them.
“From my experience, the communities have been exceptionally welcoming to the families who have moved, and overall the goodwill in Ireland is there to be tapped in to.”