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Athlone: Celebrating Ireland’s First College of Sanctuary

Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) has been designated as a College of Sanctuary in recognition of a range of initiatives demonstrating a commitment to welcoming asylum seekers and refugees into the college community and fostering a culture of inclusion for all. 

The award was marked at a celebratory event held on campus which was attended by all of the of the stakeholders involved including the team from AIT Theresa Ryan and Dr Chris McDermott who lead the committee for the Integration of Asylum Seekers and Refugees, the residents of the local direct provision centre, New Horizon volunteer group and Westmeath Community Development.

President of AIT, Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin on receipt of the award said, “Today is a proud day for AIT as it becomes the first Institute of technology in Ireland to be awarded ‘College of Sanctuary Status’ in recognition of its efforts to foster an environment of inclusion and social integration. It is a great honour for the Institute to receive this award and it is a fitting tribute to the collaboration between AIT staff and students, residents of the local direct provision centre, the New Horizon volunteer group and Westmeath Community Development. This collaboration has helped to foster a spirit of inclusion and hospitality to asylum seekers and refugees living in the Midlands. We recognise that receiving this award today is not an end point, and AIT is committed to continuing on this journey, in cooperation with New Horizon, with our ultimate aim being the creation of a truly inclusive environment for asylum seekers and refugees in the Midlands.”

Prof Ó Catháin also announced a scholarship scheme at the event by adding, “In celebration of today’s award, I am delighted to officially announce the establishment of the AIT Institute of Sanctuary Scholarship Programme. This programme will run on an annual basis and will comprise of six places on the AIT access programme, as well as 3 scholarships for undergraduate programmes in the Institute. The scholarships, which will consist of a fee waiver and financial assistance, will be open to all current and former residents of the Lissywollen Direct Provision Centre and to persons who are or were unaccompanied minors in the care of the Child and Family Agency. While we recognise that this scheme is a modest contribution in light of the vast need that exists in the area, we do believe that it constitutes a positive initiative in the promotion of social integration.”

John Roycroft, Minister Stanton’s representative from the Department of Justice sent the minister’s greetings: “I am delighted that Athlone Institute of Technology, working closely with local partners and volunteers have received this important award and recognition. The role of institutions of learning and education is emerging as one of the most important facilitators in allowing refugees and migrants to integrate into society and I know from Ireland’s intake of refugees from Syria that a key concern of many, especially young people, is to be able to continue their 3rd level education or have their qualifications recognised in some way. In the context of the National Integration Strategy and the Irish Refugee Protection Programme the work being done in the Institute is actually evolving best practice in an Irish context and both I and my officials welcome the various initiatives and the recognition of the Institute as the first College of Sanctuary in Ireland. You should all be immensely proud and I hope that other institutions of learning follow your example.”

Tiffy Allen from Places of Sanctuary added that they are “deeply impressed by AIT’s commitment to welcome and include refugees and asylum seekers, and delighted to recognise AIT as the first College of Sanctuary in Ireland. I spoke to the students and they will tell you that you go to any part of the college and it’s like the word welcome is written everywhere. When people need to feel safe and you have this sense of welcome that you have here, that is a place of sanctuary and I want to congratulate all of you and say that it has been a great privilege in Places of Sanctuary Ireland to give you this award.”

Mayor of Athlone Aengus O’Rourke concluded the ceremony by saying, “I would like to congratulate AIT on its recent designation as a “‘College of Sanctuary’ in recognition of a range of initiatives demonstrating commitment to welcoming and supporting asylum seekers and refugees in the college community, and to fostering a culture of inclusion for all.” He looks forward to work with AIT and other local groups to make Athlone a City of Sanctuary in the near future.

AIT established a Committee for the Integration of Asylum Seekers and Refugees and set out to create formal links with the New Horizon Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Group, Westmeath Community Development, and the management company in Lissywollen. A team from AIT, led by Theresa Ryan, Access Officer, commenced humanitarian work with the Lissywollen Direct Provision Accommodation Centre on the edge of the town of Athlone, by way of contributing to social integration and academic advancement of asylum seekers and refugees in the Irish Midlands.

AIT first reached out with a children’s Christmas party on campus, and 40 children and parents from the Lissywollen Centre attended. Mindful of adverse attitudes to women in some cultures, AIT established a weekly women’s group, with students and staff from AIT leading workshops in creative writing, art, knitting, flower arranging, sewing, crochet, and nail manicure and art. Among other initiatives were social outings including to a performance in the local Little Theatre and to exhibitions, and events in partnership with the local football club.

New Horizon and AIT collaborated to provide a lecture series to inform and enlighten students and members of the general public about migration issues, with AIT’s Law Lecturer Dr. Chris McDermott sharing his expertise. They also ran a weekly legal information clinic on the direct provision site.

Career and curriculum vitae advice was provided to Lissywollen residents by AIT staff and New Horizon volunteers, English language classes were delivered, and library membership including computer access was rolled out. An online learning programme was developed by AIT and over 40 residents availed, and AIT and New Horizon collaborated to develop a website that provides information and opportunities to residents. 

Six Lissywollen residents enrolled for AIT’s Special Purpose at HETAC Level 6 – a one-year full-time programme aimed at opening up third level education to non-traditional-CAO-route students. Five completed the programme and attained their qualifications. One exemplary student, 31-year-old South Africa native Vuyani Samuel Booysen, was awarded a scholarship and is now on his way to earning his Civil Engineering qualification in AIT.






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