How one church is working with community groups and civil authorities to create a community where every person feels safe, secure and respected.
By Rev. Sahr Yambasu
(From the July - September 2017 issue of VOX.)
Sahr Yambasu grew up in Sierra Leone and was ordained as a Methodist minister there. When he was granted a scholarship to continue his studies at Queen’s University, Sahr met his future wife while spending Christmas with a friend in Longford town. They were married in 1988 and returned to teach in the theological college in Sierra Leone in 1992.
Forced to return to Ireland during the civil war, Sahr went to work for the Methodist Church in Ireland and has ministered in Wicklow, Galway, Carlow and Kilkenny. For the last three years, he has worked in Waterford city. His personal experiences as a reluctant immigrant have given him unique insight into the challenge of immigration and integration in Ireland. During the Finding Faith Tour, he spoke extensively to VOX Editor Ruth Garvey-Williams about this vital issue.
I never planned to come and live in Ireland but when civil war broke out in 1995, we had to move back to Ireland with our children. I found it quite traumatic to be here. I was living in Ireland but my spirit was in Sierra Leone. The war lasted for ten years. Our children were growing up and there was no way we could uproot them again. Eventually, I had to come to terms with it.
I came here [to Waterford] three years ago. This is a very mixed congregation with 15 different nationalities. Three-quarters of them are migrants. When you move from your culture into another place, there are a lot of problems.
Ministry here is both practical and social. When people lose loved ones back in their home countries, it places immense stress. Some cannot travel because of their financial or visa situation but they still feel an obligation to help with funeral costs. We encourage them to organise a memorial service or vigil in the church. They invite their friends in the city and people in the church, and through that, we encourage people to give them financial support. This helps them either to travel home or to send money home.
When I came here, we helped to establish Waterford as a ‘City of Sanctuary.’ Basically, the movement encourages community groups to work together with civil authorities to create a society of acceptance, welcome and support to those who are coming from outside. By providing sanctuary, we help them feel safe, secure and respected.
We have done a bit of fundraising to help with housing for those leaving direct provision. It is very difficult to find housing and especially to pay a deposit. There are people in direct provision who cannot leave even though they have papers.
We provide training courses, because if you are going to live in any society, you have to know how it works. We also train people to tell their stories so people know what they have gone through and what their aspirations are. And we encourage them to volunteer in the community so that they can get to know people and so that others will accept them as “real” human beings.
One of our principles is that everybody in the community needs to feel that they are safe and secure. That includes any groups that feel marginalised or intimidated, whether immigrant or Irish.
Recently, I have been quite concerned that there was a lot of talk about integration in all the public literature but in reality there is very little of it happening. You might think that everything is wonderful but it is not.
I decided to have a focus group discussion with migrants in the city. I invited 25 of them from different parts of the world, divided them into groups and had them reflect on questions and their experiences. It was all recorded, and I put it all together and called a conference to share the findings. As a result, they decided that we should set up a Migrants Forum for Waterford city.
Finding work is one of the main challenges for migrants. A lot are highly educated, but when they apply for jobs here, 95% of the time, they don’t even get a reply. When a potential employer sees an application form, the first thing they look at is the name. If they cannot pronounce the name, then the person often doesn’t get an interview. People quickly become disheartened.
One of the phrases they used was that they feel they are being “raped” of their culture. That is such a strong word. Our culture is something sacred. It is a powerful and painful thing when it is taken away from you against your will.
Another problem we are facing is that the children of immigrant parents, who have been born and raised in Ireland, feel Irish. The parents don’t understand. When the children come home from school, it is like going to a strange country. Home is where mum and dad are but the kids cannot relate to them. This creates a lot of conflict and tension.
I think there is a huge need for intercultural education, even within families. We need to create space where people feel free to have a conversation about these issues. People need to be confident, and if they don’t know, they need to feel free to ask. Imagine the joy it will create if people could talk about things. I’m hoping that we will be able to encourage the local authorities to take integration more seriously.