What a difference a few weeks can make. On May 25, The Kilkenny Observer attended the Fr McGrath Centre for the ‘Fáilte Isteach’ certificates presentation. The event was a joyous occasion and the room was bursting with energy, laughter and pride.
Fast forward four weeks and the atmosphere has changed dramatically.
From being a centre filled with enthusiasm and energy, it is now a centre where uncertainty and nervousness prevail. And the reason?
The Fr. McGrath Immigrant Support Service is in imminent danger of permanently closing its doors when current funding for its Support Officer Samuel Morgan runs out at the end of next month.
Regrettably this threat is coming at a time when the expertise and trust built up over many years was never more pertinent.
The service has recently stepped up to the plate once again and reached out to Ukrainian refugees who are in need of empathetic support and compassion and has linked them to services, provided orientation to the Irish system, and welcomed them to the Fáilte Isteach language support project.
This critical service was founded over eleven years ago by Thomastown woman Theresa Delahunty, with the support of a group of volunteers.
Theresa takes up the story. “The main focus here is to give specialised support to marginalised immigrants. We give them a step up to access and remain in education and training with various bodies i.e. ETB – this cohort sometimes leave courses because they feel they cannot keep up”
The programme at the centre identified the challenges and inequalities of outcomes for different ethnic groups living in Kilkenny.
This arose due to deficits in English language, culture differences and little understanding of how the Irish system worked.
The initiative was designed to help immigrants overcome such barriers by providing one-to-one support while also focusing on linguistic, civic, and developmental training.
Success was measured by the increased numbers from ethnic communities who engaged in education, skills training and social and community activities.
The Support Clinics which provides a one-to-one service in a low key manner has built trust with the immigrant community.
Those availing of this service know that confidentiality in a non-judgemental space is assured.
The Fáilte Isteach English Language project operated by the Immigrant Service is another key component of the service and is pivotal to integration, as Theresa says “without a common language there is no integration”.
Roll forward eleven years and while some services for immigrants have improved, there is still little or nothing for those who find themselves outside the mainstream system, have little education, lack digital competence and have challenges adapting to a new culture.
To this day Immigrant Services remains the only dedicated hands-on support for such immigrants in Kilkenny.
Funding has always been a major challenge and the service has operated on a shoestring budget. However, with the commitment and goodwill of volunteers, support from the Fr. McGrath Centre and small grants from Kilkenny Leader Partnership, it has continued to pitch far above its weight.
The employment of a trained Support Officer to deal with complex immigration issues has strengthened the service and has broadened the reach and range of services available.
Many refugees who formerly lived in the now defunct Johns Green Direct Provision Centre settled in Kilkenny. They were joined by family members and created new family units, thereby expanding the immigrant population in Kilkenny.
A further growth in the local immigrant population was generated by the economic boom, with the subsequent crash bringing its own social and financial issues, when demands on the service reached new highs. During this period there was also an increase in the number of people seeking protection, resulting in Resettlement Programmes of refugees from South Sudan and Syria.
Throughout the changing demographics, Immigrant Service was there to reach out “Welcome the Strangers”, and support them as they transitioned to a new way of life.
In the long-run this has led to better outcomes for individuals and families and has improved their chances of employment or education and led to sustainable integration with the local community.
Throughout the Covid pandemic which impacted heavily on immigrants, especially those with language and digital literacy deficits, Immigrant Service was to the fore to help them overcome many of their challenges as services went online.
The Fr. McGrath Immigrant Services remained operational throughout the lockdowns to support those who were isolated and cut off from everyday life and lacked the presence of a family network to support them.
The one-to-one training supplied by the service in the use of digital devices helped those most in need to access and use the online services for their everyday needs and stay connected during Covid restrictions.
Therese also explains the difficulty of those immigrants who have become irregular.
“This can happen as a result of delays or difficulty renewing their passports, especially from countries outside EU. We help them with their applications and procurement of documents.
If they are in employment they can continue so long as they show evidence that they are in the process of renewing. It costs €300 to renew Irish Residence Permit (IRP) for those with “humanitarian leave to remain” or “leave to remain” for any other reason. Many who seek our State’s protection often fall under this category rather than refugee status.
Immigrant Services helps such people on a one-to-one basis with regularising their residency and work permit permissions, thereby, helping them to remain in employment or education.
CRUCIAL SERVICE HELPS INTEGRATION
Stephen Murphy, Director of Services at the Fr. McGrath Family Resource Centre said:
‘The closure of this Immigrant Advisory Service, developed by Samuel and volunteers over years, has played a crucial role in helping many people integrate, find work and access education or other essential family services.
The loss of Samuel’s expertise will hit some of our most traumatised refugees and asylum seekers hardest.’
He added: “considering we are now regarded as a lead community agency by Tusla for dealing with Ukrainian families in Kilkenny, the timing couldn’t be worse.’
We are appealing to the government and the County Council to help us find the small funds needed to keep this service running for another year.”
Despite all the good work, it now appears that the well has finally run dry insofar as funds are concerned and unless new funding is immediately sourced, there will be no option but to close the doors.