9 December 1999 Edition
Treating refugee kids with respect
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
Little Amato stepped forward, all three feet of him, put out his hand and said, with great handsome eyes full of life, full of confidence, eye to eye, ``Yes. I am very pleased to meet you. How do you do. You are welcome.'' A big welcome. All over the classroom there are signs in different alphabets and languages, which the kids had written up, in Russian, Arabic, Romanian, Bulgarian, French, and Irish, saying `welcome'.
These were the kids at Plás Mhuire Boys National School. They come from all over the world - Belarus, Nigeria, Russia, Bulgaria, Kosova, Hong Kong, Macao, Sierra Leone. In their school they have a support teacher under the Refugee Support Service (RSS) Programme which the Department of Education runs in 21 schools in Dublin City and County and in Ennis, County Clare. There are a large number of kids in these schools whose families are exiled here and who do not have English as a first language. Some don't know any English at all.
The RSS Programme is designed to give help with language. But it is of course much more than this. It's a programme of anti-racism, which helps all the children to understand about other countries, to respect and learn from their different cultures, and to welcome and be glad about these kids being here.
It took a campaign to get the programme, which is an extension of a scheme that the Department had in place for refugees from Bosnia and Vietnam. Teachers needed help to deal with classes where sometimes half the children simply didn't understand English. ``They needed a programme which would counter racist attitudes to ethnic minorities and teach the values of multiculturalism in a whole school approach,'' says Gregor Kerr who was amongst the first teachers to campaign.
The whole school campaigned. ``In the end we went on a one-day strike, parents and teachers took part. It taught us how if you fight for something that people really need and want, then you can win,'' Finian McGrath, the school principal explains. The campaign drew teachers and parents together. And they won. Now the Department has 15 support teachers, some of them supporting a couple of schools.
``We have a parent's hour when parents drop in and find out about the school and the Irish education system, but also it helps to overcome their isolation and difficulties in integrating into a strange community. Soon we hope to get an after school project with classes for parents started with computer training, or language, or whatever they want. All the parents have been 100% supportive,'' says Gregor.
``One parent turned out to be a professional soccer coach. He comes in to train the kids. We had a World Cup Tournament, with 10 different nation teams. The kids took on to play for different countries. It was great. The kids loved it. It was global in a real sense. Little children playing for, and shouting for Romania, or Nigeria, in the final.''
Gregor tells how one kid stole a cap from another kid. ``Who stole it? The kid described him, what he was wearing, how tall he was, and so on. But he never even thought to mention he was black. Nobody has ever met a two-year-old child who hates another for the colour of his skin. Racism is something which is taught. Similarly anti-racism and the benefits of a multicultural society can be taught.''
And that is just what Gregor and the other 18 staff in the two schools, with over 200 boys and girls, are doing in St. Mary's Place N.S. Says one teacher, ``It is an example to all primary schools of how teaching `Walk Tall', the new primary education curriculum, can succeed. These children learn self esteem and respect for each other. Above all, they learn to talk about their feelings and what happens to them in their lives. It's an education to watch.''
``Gregor's class is model for `Walk Tall', where the kids are happy, laughing, attentive, excited, and learning much more than language from each other and from an outstanding teacher. It is one of the best primary schools in Ireland, even though it is situated in what is classified a disadvantaged area.''
The crisis at the Mount Street One-stop shop for asylum seekers, when the doors were closed in the faces of long queues of people who seek refuge in this state, provoked a display of racist comment in the circus press that speaks to prejudice.
Irresponsible politicians also eagerly pandered to the lowest common denominator as they spoke for electoral support.
Ivor Callely, chair of the Eastern Health Board, was supported in his remarks about `throwing out' the `illegal immigrants', by Bertie Ahern, talking to the same constituency. Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, John O'Donoghue, just as the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Bill was passing into law, saw fit to rail against those refugees who, he claims, come over in hundreds in taxis to Dundalk.
The politicians were hotly pursued by O'Reilly's gutter press, with screaming headlines of racial abuse suffered by refugees and of scams which refugees are alleged to perpetrate.
Under cover of this darkness, the government has declared its intent to fingerprint all refugees, to make medical examinations mandatory, and to introduce a voucher scheme for those who seek asylum here. The Government has already begun implementing what it calls `dispersal', where refugees have no choice as to whether or not they wish to be `dispersed'.
At the same time, despite the failure to implement the 1996 Refugee Act, and despite two major pieces of legislation which this government has introduced, the Immigration Bill (1999), and the Illegal Immigration (Trafficking) Bill (1999), the government declares it has no immigration strategy and has set up a cross department committee to draw one up.
In reality, of course, the government does have a strategy for immigration and asylum seekers, terms it likes to confuse. It's quite simple. On immigration, it is to facilitate companies to bring in cheap labour from Eastern Europe, which is white, to fill the 50,000 jobs which cannot at present be filled. On asylum, the policy is: keep them out by ensuring that their treatment here is at least as bad as other spots in Fortress Europe.
The British are in the process of introducing a voucher scheme. Refugees are issued with vouchers instead of cash. It means separate shops, separate queues, much restricted choice, and all the petty indignities of separateness. Ireland, instead of joining other EU countries in support of policies which respect human rights, which favour treatment of asylum seekers with humanity and dignity, which pro-actively welcome cultural diversity into our society, instead simply apes the English, and promises vouchers.
These schemes, which the government plans to introduce by spring, have been roundly condemned by human rights groups, like the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Refugee Council. Each of these schemes sets refugees apart from the citizens of this state and denies them right to `equality before the law', as the constitution guarantees to its citizens. This is the very essence of racism - the differentiation of a class of citizens from another class of `not quite citizens'. These measures are institutionalised racism.
Dublin Corporation's recent decision not to give refugees access to the new centre for the homeless to be opened shortly in Parkgate Street, introduces discrimination which inevitably will ground racist discontents. Dublin Corporation has no excuse whatsoever not to have found accommodation for thousands of homeless people in the city, no matter where the homeless may come from, or the colour of their skin.
A consultation document drawn up by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland - a Guide to Good Practice for Racial Equality in Education - refers to the functions of the Equality Commissioner as laid down in the Good Friday Agreement in his role to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation.
The question is, will the Equality Commissioner based in Dublin meet these obligations and how will that office deal with vouchers, dispersal without choice, mandatory medical examination or fingerprinting?