Connecting through language: helping migrants integrate

Irish social organisation Failte Isteach is connecting marginalised groups to create a more inclusive Ireland.

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How can host countries help immigrants integrate? The question looms large in Europe, which is experiencing a migration emergency that many are calling the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. In 2015 alone over 100,000 migrants have landed on shores around Italy, Greece, Spain and France, and according to UN estimates, over 60% of these have been refugees fleeing conflict zones.

Under EU law, migrants seeking refugee status are entitled to food and housing while their cases are reviewed, but covering these rights represents a bare minimum effort, and 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 organizations are stepping in to help migrants integrate in their host communities.

An unusual pioneer in inclusion has been the independent, non-governmental volunteer center 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.”

Photo credit: Failte Isteach

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. Mary cites an encounter with a young Polish mother in a supermarket; when Mary saw that the distressed woman could not read the packaging, she recognized 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 organization,” she 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.

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

“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 Mary. Third Age has received both local and international recognition for its work, with funding awards from SocialEntrepreneurs Ireland, the Arthur Guinness Fund and others. In 2009, Mary received funding and strategic support through a global partnership with Boehringer-Ingelheim.