500 teachers come together to learn about how to welcome Ukrainian refugee children into their schools
500 teachers from all over the country came together on the 23rd March 2022 for a webinar on how to welcome refugee children – and particularly refugee children from Ukraine – into Irish schools. The webinar was organised jointly by Dublin City University and Schools of Sanctuary Ireland, an initiative of Places of Sanctuary Ireland, the all-island network of groups set up in 2016 whose aim is to create a culture of welcome, safety and inclusion for refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants.
The webinar opened with a film made by Trinity College Dublin academics showing the comparisons between African people fleeing from famine across the Mediterranean today and Irish people fleeing across the Atlantic from famine in the 1840s.
It continued with presentations from three Schools of Sanctuary (schools which have made a particular commitment to welcoming and educating refugee children in recent years): Bunscoil Loreto, Gorey, Co Wexford; Mount Sion CBS Secondary School,Waterford city; and Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School, Dublin 18.
Aileen Kennedy and Paula Quinn of Bunscoil Loreto (the first primary School of Sanctuary in the Republic of Ireland) outlined how schools should be ready to respond to the practical needs of newcomer Ukrainian children (books, uniforms, language and transport needs); to be aware of the need to treat all refugee children with equal compassion and care; to ask the Irish children to imagine what it would be like to arrive in a new school where you don’t know anybody and don’t understand the language and culture; to be aware of Russian and Ukrainian children in the same classroom; and to involve the Irish children in preparing welcoming materials and posters.
Homayoon Shirzad, national coordinator of Schools of Sanctuary Ireland, and himself a former Afghan refugee, explained some of the probable emotional needs of the newcomer children who may have experienced violence and trauma; are feeling grief and anxiety about family and friends (and even pets) still in Ukraine; and are feeling confused, anxious and friendless. The most important thing, he stressed, was for schools to strive to offer “an atmosphere of calm, safety, belonging and hope.”
Kinda Nassli, a Syrian refugee mother living in Longford, spoke about how she had sought schools for her 17 year old son and three and a half year old twin daughters. She emphasised the importance of being sensitive and aware of different cultures in Irish schools. Her son is now studying astro-physics at Maynooth University with a Sanctuary Scholarship provided by Universities of Sanctuary Ireland.
Mehwish Saquib, a Pakistani mother of three children, spoke of how difficult it was for those children to keep changing school when they were moved to three different direct provision centres – in Dublin, Mayo and Meath – in their first year in Ireland.
Lizi Gelenidze, orginally from Georgia, described how she had arrived in a secondary school in County Wexford with little English, and how difficult it had been to study for the Leaving Certificate during the Covid lockdown with her whole family living in two rooms in a direct provision centre. She is now doing a science foundation course at Trinity College Dublin, also on a Sanctuary Scholarship, and hopes to study medicine from next year.
Sallie Ennis, a teacher at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School, explained that her school had students from 40 different countries speaking 27 languages. In preparation for becoming a School of Sanctuary they had done a survey of the school’s multinational student body, so were well prepared for the arrival of Ukrainian newcomer students. Among the welcoming offerings they provided was traditional Ukrainian cheesecake, baked by a student from that country already at the school, to present to the newcomers on their first morning.
Sallie also provided signposts to a wide range of online resources available for teachers welcoming refugee students, and paid particular tribute to the pioneering website of Mount Sion CBS Secondary School in Waterford, the first School of Sanctuary in the Republic, and its inspirational lead teacher Narrell Byrne.
A recording of the yesterday’s webinar is available on https://youtu.be/YhkOexKQwSs
The Schools of Sanctuary Ireland website is at https://schools-ireland.cityofsanctuary.org
Further information from:
Homayoon Shirzad, Assistant National Coordinator, Schools of Sanctuary Ireland
Tiffy Allen, National Coordinator, Places of Sanctuary Ireland
Sallie Ennis, chair, Schools of Sanctuary Ireland