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Dealing in diversity

The Interview
A woman sits in front of shelves of books

Dealing in diversity

The Interview
Claire Egan

This week Mayo Intercultural Action Group will launch their research findings entitled ‘Building a Diverse Mayo’ – a study on immigration integration and service provision within county Mayo.
One of the driving forces behind the publication is Geraldine Mitchell, a native of Dublin but now a resident of Devlin, a small village west of Louisburgh overlooking the Atlantic.
As well as working with the MIA, Geraldine has been actively involved with the Louisburgh Community Project as a development outreach officer. Her ties with the west were forged over two decades.
“During the eighties I happened to be teaching in Madrid. Some friends of mine wanted to go on holidays to the west. My family had friends living in Devlin, not too far from Killadoon. We made enquiries with them and they located a house for us and we spent many a summer holiday there from that point onwards,” said Geraldine.
Roots were put down and firm friendships were formed with the locals as Mitchell became accustomed to the nuances and traditions of life in a rural west of Ireland village.
As a graduate of English and French from Trinity College, Dublin she remembers with a wistful smile the globe-trotting of her youth.
Her travels proved a catalyst for life – informing many of her opinions and allowing her to experience the many diversities the world had to offer. Having spent a year in Marseillies, France Mitchell’s eyes were opened to a myriad of diverse cultures and ethnic groups.
She acknowledges that her present day interests were formed from a life long appreciation of life  as an ‘outsider’.
“Well when I was growing up I came from a Protestant background and at the time differences were imposed at a young age whether it was going to a different school or hospital or after school groups. I suppose from a young age I was interested in different cultures – the idea of displacement and then the whole issue of belonging,” she explains.
And so, what of now, one may be prompted to ask. Time spent in France was followed by a sojourn in North Africa and then a teaching post in Madrid, Spain where she also compiled reports for ‘The Irish Times’. After two years in London she returned to her native Dublin.
Many moons later and with thousand of miles behind her, Geraldine moved west and found herself looking out across the Atlantic ocean from the warmth of a rural cottage nestled snugly beneath the shadows of the Mweelra mountains.
On the evening she arrived she recalls rushing off  to attend a Westport meeting of the Mayo Intercultural Action Group, leaving boxes and suitcases scattered around her new abode.
A discreet involvement with the group as well as her role as an outreach community development officer with Louisburgh Community Project catapulted her into the heart of rural life.
“My own work was an initial three-year contract and I suppose my brief was to try and bring different community bodies together and liaise with them on schemes,” she explains.
But Geraldine is anxious to detract attention from her own past role, preferring instead to focus on the collective work and the importance of the community development project.
“The project was originally intended for carers and women in the home but now it has expanded its brief considerably. That expansion also coincides of course with societal changes. For instance the project is running a lot of courses on men’s health as it is very much in focus and there is greater emphasis upon it at present,” said Geraldine.
Thoughtful and precise with her measured answers, Mitchell is perceptive in her analysis of the challenges facing rural communities.
“One of the major problems for rural communities is access; access to services, transport, health, education and a myriad of other services which are more easily accessed in urban areas. The problems in rural areas are far different to those in urban. And government bodies cannot presume to pre suppose that the challenges facing the urban are similar to the rural,” said Geraldine.
After five years with the Louisburgh Community Project, she has moved in a new direction. She is part of the editorial team of ‘Building a Diverse Mayo’ the research publication of Mayo Intercultural Action Group.
Her own involvement is borne purely out of a ‘sense of justice’ and she further adds it is not just ‘a group of bleeding heart liberals as a certain government minister so readily calls us’.
Mayo Intercultural Action Group is the only body in the county solely dedicated to refugee, asylum and immigration matters. It is linked to regional and national organisations and brings expertise and information to community groups.
“Many of the people who have come to this country as either refugees, asylum seekers or migrants have left behind appalling conditions. They may be escaping from civil wars, economic disasters, genocide or religious persecutions. The life they have left behind is very traumatic and making the transition to life here is not easy.
Her time in France has made her aware of the dangers of the conflict between the native population and immigrants.
“In relation to the influx of people into this country Ireland needs to look at itself in a global context. There are civil wars, genocide, economic collapses and natural disasters all over the world resulting in the mass movement of people who are looking for a better way of life. It is happening as we speak and is something that Ireland and the Government cannot but be aware of,” said Geraldine.
She dismisses the alarmism surrounding the immigration issue as a threat to an Irish way of life. She views this development as an opportunity. Furthermore she adds that the current legislative measures mitigate against asylum seekers.
“Current rules are not helping-asylum seekers come here but they are restricted from working or from moving. They are housed in hostels indefinitely until they have their hearings for refugee status. They want to work but are not allowed to do so,” she explains.
Geraldine Mitchell is confident that organisations such as the Mayo Intercultural Action Group will go a long way to promoting their integration and in turn erase the subtle scepticism which permeates certain levels of society.
“There is a wonderful opportunity for Mayo to show the way forward in terms of working with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and working together in society. The publication launched by the MIA is to help organisations plan strategically for the future and assist all parties to cope with the wide range of languages, cultures and traditions,” said Mitchell.
Past experience has taught her to appreciate that change is a marathon process and not a sprint – patience is a necessary virtue.
“Over time one hopes that every little contribution allied with gentle pressure will make a difference,” she concludes.

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