Helping refugees integrate through language learning

How can countries help refugees integrate? The question looms large in Europe, which is experiencing a refugee crisis many are calling the biggest since World War II. In Ireland one organisation believes communication could be the answer

Under EU law, migrants seeking refugee status are entitled to food and housing while their cases are reviewed, but covering these rights does not always address the isolation and trauma that asylum seekers can experience after going through the ordeal of migration. While governments struggle to cope with the increased demand on resources, small independent organisations are stepping in to help refugees integrate in their host communities.

An unusual pioneer in inclusion has been the independent, non-governmental volunteer centre Third Age, based in Ireland. Third Age began in the 1980s as an innovative community hub for the elderly, offering voluntary services, such as a listening helpline, and social activities all built around celebrating the “third age of life.”

“We know that it’s having an impact – for parents, it means being able to help their children with homework. For others, it’s helping make them more employable in Ireland.”

For many years, Third Age catered primarily to the needs of seniors and retirees, but by 2006 its founder Mary Nally had noticed a change in the demographics of her village. Between 2004-2007, Ireland experienced a steep increase in immigration, with thousands of international newcomers joining communities in every town and village in Ireland. Nally cites an encounter with a young Polish mother in a supermarket; when Nally saw that the distressed woman could not read the packaging, she recognised this as another form of isolation.

“I sat down with members of our vibrant, elderly volunteer force, and we decided that we would welcome these people into our organisation,” Nally recounts. “By teaching them conversational English, perhaps we could help immigrants to integrate into the community.”

Calling itself Fáilte Isteach (which translates to “welcome in” in Gaelic), the English teaching program spread by word-of-mouth and within a year was rolled out to new communities.

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Almost ten years after its founding, the program counts 72 branches nationally, drawing on over 600 trained volunteers, 80 percent of whom are elderly. The impact is significant, with over 2,000 migrants attending classes in the various national centres every week. As the refugee crisis in greater Europe has grown, so have the numbers fleeing to Ireland, and Fáilte Isteach is increasingly becoming a key support network for the communities it operates in.

“Over 2,000 migrants attend classes in the various national centres every week.”

“We know that it’s having an impact in many ways. For parents, it means being able to help their children with homework. For others, it’s helping make them more employable in Ireland,” says Nally. Third Age has received both local and international recognition for its work, with funding awards from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, the Arthur Guinness Fund and others. In 2009, Nally received funding and strategic support through a global partnership with Boehringer-Ingelheim.

For now, Third Age and its programs remain based in Ireland, but international expansion is not off the table. Earlier in 2015, Nally spoke at the Innovate to Restart conference in Italy and met with several social cooperatives, including Milan-based Piccolo Principe, which expressed interest in piloting a program based on the Fáilte Isteach model. Asked whether she could imagine that Third Age and Fáilte Isteach could expand abroad in the near future, Nally is optimistic: “We would love to share what we have learnt,” she says.

First published by Forbes