The conference was held on 20th October 2021, and schools from 12 counties found plenty of inspiration to set them firmly on the road to making a difference as Schools of Sanctuary. Several schools zoomed in with classrooms full of interested students, and were able to make valuable connections with others on the same path. We also had visitors from Education Authority of Northern Ireland, the Department of Education, IPAS and several Universities of Sanctuary, so our speakers knew they were addressing a very mixed audience.
The programme began with a reminder from the team of the essence of being a School of Sanctuary and the 3 key tools to Learn, Take Action and Share. Four schools then illustrated these tools with lively examples. Paula Quinn of Bunscoil Loreto in Gorey Wexford began, with an entertaining, visual and very practical show of the ways this pioneer School of Sanctuary is keeping the commitment and values alive and fresh. Their signature song, ‘All Are Welcome’, a wonderful way the vision is shared nationally, was beautifully performed as a moving and apt finale. We then moved to County Waterford where Jacinta O Rourke of treated us to a powerful reminder of Mt Sion Secondary School’s ongoing commitment to including and welcoming all, especially emphasising their flagship programme of language support for all, including parents.
Many Irish schools and students are unaware of the barriers facing students in Direct Provision, so the input of Creagh College Gorey, was a real eye-opener for many. Rania Elamin, a member of the Schools of Sanctuary Steering Group, described the experience of arriving in Direct Provision with four children, all with educational needs. She explained the anxiety of her twin daughters, who were preparing for Leaving Certificate, trying to study in cramped living conditions during lockdown, and facing exclusion from 3rd level education because of their status, and moving described the ‘sanctuary’ that Creagh College was for her family. Janet Wallace, Creagh’s deputy principal, then shared the way the school responded to the opening of an emergency Direct Provision Centre in the area. Staff were united in wanting to embrace all the challenges of ten new students, some with no English, and to embark on a journey of mutual learning. Janet emphasised how much the whole school had been enriched and blessed by the new arrivals, and ways that the learning journey continues. Lizi, one of the ten students, then came on to explain how difficult it was for her, joining 5th Year with very little English, but cherishing a desire to go on to 3rd level and eventually become a doctor. Through the help of Creagh College and the Universities of Sanctuary, Lizi, like Rania’s twins, did very well in Leaving Cert, – they are all now proud to be university students, thanks to Sanctuary Scholarships.
The final school presentation came from Dublin, where Sallie Ennis and a team from Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School explained some of the ways the entire school has embraced the challenge to learn about International protection and what it means to be a refugee. Every class had an opportunity to hear the story of a refugee in Direct Provision and to put their learning into action. Finally, Homayoon shared the story of his nephews, two newly arrived Afghan refugees aged 21 and 17, who have arrived safely in Ireland and need pathways to complete their school and university of education. This moving personal story brought us all back to the basic need for us to be committed to welcome and inclusion of all those in need of sanctuary, and how we all have a part to play. There was a short time for some questions and comments, and the team was delighted to see spontaneous thanks and congratulations coming from all sections of the zoom chat.
All presentations and the recording of the morning are available for any interested school, please contact Homayoon or Tiffy for more information.