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22 June 2022

In the final monitoring visit of the year, St Mary’s NS Limerick was awarded the accolade of becoming Limerick’s first nationally recognised School of Sanctuary on Wednesday 22nd June.

The team was thrilled by the commitment of the whole staff and student body, and we look forward to the many ways they will undoubtedly spread the message throughout their county and beyond. Here is the report.

Schools of Sanctuary National Monitoring Team at St. Mary’s National School in Limerick City

Members of Monitoring Team: Andy Pollak (Dublin), Homayoon Shirzad and Manuela Okafor (Waterford), Frank Keane (Galway), Khatira Samim (Abbeyfeale), Ahmed Hassan and Edel Foster (Limerick)

This monitoring visit took place from 11 am to 2 pm on Wednesday 22nd June 2022. The team was welcomed by the St Mary’s NS principal, Eoghan O’Byrne, and members of his staff team, with tea and cakes. We were told that around one third of the children in the school, which is a DEIS school in a disadvantaged area, were either foreign-born or had foreign-born parents.

St. Mary’s NS Schools of Sanctuary board with World Map showing school population coming from different parts of the world

We were shown the St Mary’s School of Sanctuary Proclamation, put together by the sixth class and displayed on notice boards throughout the school. It read:  “All members of our school community will be treated with respect; experience inclusivity in all aspects of school life; show and practice awareness of others; be proud of each other; be treated equally.” Other posters listed the virtues of inclusion, kindness and safety, and flags and emblems from countries around the world.

We then divided into three groups to visit the classrooms. We were impressed with all classes’ (with one exception – see below) knowledge about the countries represented by pupils in the school, and about issues concerning refugees and migrants. In a class of five and six year olds, they knew about the asylum process, how long asylum applicants had to wait and routes taken by refugees coming to Ireland. They also knew about the languages spoken in Afghanistan. This class had prepared a story about a child being forced to escape from a burning house; how people offered her food as she escaped; and how rich people didn’t even notice her. Even children in the infant class knew what a refugee was.

Children aged 5-10 years were able to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in multiple languages. In one class there was a particular interest in far Eastern countries like China, Japan and Korea (and in Chinese pandas!). In one class they sang ‘You’ve got a friend in me’. The team was particularly impressed by highly articulate pupils from Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. One class agreed to do a project in their final two days of term to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to ask him to intercede with the Pakistani government for the family and children of an Afghan member of the monitoring team, who have been stuck in Pakistan for the past eight months.

Khatira Samim with Andy Pollak the members of the SoS National Monitoring Team

The monitoring team was particular struck by the warmth of the interactions between pupils and teachers, and with the monitoring team, and the school’s welcoming and relaxed atmosphere. They also noticed that awareness of Sanctuary issues was a ‘whole school’ phenomenon evident in all classes, and not restricted to a few teachers.

St. Mary’s Schools of Sanctuary Committee with SoS National Monitoring Team

Mr O’Byrne (who is himself relatively new to the principal’s post) said the school had only been working on Sanctuary issues since December 2021. He said the long-term strategy was to “build from the ground up” so that by the time the present infant class reached sixth class, Sanctuary values and a culture of Sanctuary would be deeply embedded in the school. He said he was conscious that this was “the beginning of a journey”.

He spoke strongly at the meeting with the St Mary’s School of Sanctuary committee (consisting of the principal, four teachers and five pupils) at the end of the visit about the need to confront students treating another student unjustly and about the absolute unacceptability of racist or other exclusionary comments. He said there would be a School of Sanctuary segment in the new school website due to be put up the following day. He said the school was “fully committed” to making the school’s Sanctuary work “long lasting”.

The lead School of Sanctuary teacher, Marian, spoke about how they were “sowing the seeds for the future in the younger classes.” She said they planned to share their experience with other Limerick schools through the TEAL pluri-language project run by Mary Immaculate College (the MIC diversity and inclusion manager, Edel Foster, was on the monitoring team), and the ‘Sing out with Strings’ musical project with the University of Limerick.

The team was very moved when a 10-year-old Latvian-Moldovan girl, Isabella, asked what was the best thing about the Sanctuary process in the school for her, replied: “If Romania [her Afghan-Pakistani friend] wasn’t in the school, I wouldn’t be sure about myself. She is the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Overall the monitoring team was most impressed by the amount St Mary’s NS had achieved in a very short period of time. We were impressed by the understanding of the Sanctuary ethos of welcome and inclusion shown by the principal, the staff and the pupils, and how they had ‘bought into’ that ethos with their practice in the school. We were impressed by the warmth, commitment and enthusiasm of the staff (and particularly the staff-student School of Sanctuary committee) for  putting into effect Sanctuary values in St Mary’s. We were impressed at the knowledge displayed by the pupils about issues to do with refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. We were impressed by the pupil-created Sanctuary Proclamation, the displays in the corridors and other evidence that the school was really committed to the Schools of Sanctuary message of ‘learn, take action, share.’

At the end of its visit, the monitoring team unanimously recommended that St Mary’s NS should be recognised as a School of Sanctuary (the 10th in the Republic of Ireland). We recommended that the school should issue a press release to this effect and send it to the Limerick media.

Andy Pollak

Team leader

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