January 2008 Reflection

If the first journal entry had to do with the novelty of arriving in Ireland, this one is more about settling in. While I love visiting Dublin (and now Limerick, after a fun-filled weekend of Munster rugby, pub sing-songs, and Mitchell bonding), I feel like I can really own Cork. No, I haven’t invested my Mitchell stipend in real estate, but I am gradually getting to feel like a part of the city.

For one, I began interning at Nasc (Irish for “link”), the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, as part of my course in November. The NGO sector is fairly new in Ireland (especially around migration issues) and I’ve noticed many of the same struggles that NGOs in the U.S. face. For example, the staff frequently has to balance long-term vision with the day-to-day grind. Of course, the ideal situation involves the integration of migrants into Ireland culturally, politically, and economically. Yet how does one actually go and achieve this goal?

I’ve had two main projects at Nasc that illustrate this struggle between the short-term and long-term. First, my two classmates and I have worked on Nasc’s Speaker’s Panel, a group that trains members in public speaking. Speaker’s Panel members speak about their experience as migrants in Ireland to the local schools, lead anti-racism workshops, and educate various groups (including Gardai and social service providers) about development issues in their countries of origin. In speaking with the participants, I’ve seen how comfortable and fluent (not just linguistically) they are as a result of their participation in the Panel. In fact, some have even picked up a Cork accent, which I am still trying – in vain – to achieve. It’s easy to get excited about the potential of the Speaker’s Panel. However, in the last few weeks, we’ve struggled with the participation rates in the Speaker’s Panel. Even if we’ve called the twelve members multiple times to remind them of a mutually-agreed upon meeting time, we’ll only have two people show up. This lack of participation not only negatively impacts the migrants, but puts added pressure on Nasc, who has to answer to their funders.

Where we didn’t have a problem with participation was in my second project: planning the Nasc Christmas party. Throw in some presents, food, and presents and people show up in droves. We had African food, a Burmese Santa Clause, and over a hundred asylum seekers, migrants, and “native” Irish crammed into the Nasc office. Planning this party dealt explicitly with the nitty-gritty of the NGO and migrant sectors. It also added to that sense of familiarity with Cork, whether I was running to the Discount World on North Main Street to get one more tablecloth, to Lidl, Aldi, and Tesco looking for the best price on wine or heading out to each of the accommodation centers (where asylum seekers live while they await decisions on their applications) to post flyers for the event.

At the time, I was frustrated by what I thought was the short-sightedness of it all. Why were we putting in all this effort for a Christmas party? To be honest, I still have this thought whenever I flashback to the clean-up. However, I’m also reminded by the importance of interpersonal connections. Even if just for one night, everyone at Nasc – no matter your refugee status or country of origin – could feel like a part of a whole, that has to count for something. And from my experience of working with various groups back in the States, it does.

And so for me, it comes back to the long-term versus short-term. I have a tendency to get caught up in what happens next, next, next. I’m sure many of the Mitchell Scholars are the same way. But many times, those now moments can have just as much impact. Which means for me, “owning” Cork isn’t just about leaving with a degree from its University. And it isn’t so much about knowing the street names and local haunts – though it surely helps. It’s more about knowing the people who live here, whether they were born and raised in Cork, arrived years ago, or are just beginning to grasp that distinctive accent for the first time.

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