A new home from home

 

The latest census figures will show that 10 per cent of people living in the Republic were born outside this country. Ruadhán Mac Cormaicexplores the challenges and opportunities our new multicultural identity is bringing 

At the bazaar on Mao Jie, everything is in motion. The fruit vendors shuffle around their improvised, high-piled stalls, around them a stream of morning shoppers rushing urgently by. Shutters roll skywards, fish carts trundle into position and supply vans ease their way through the crowd.

The place gives up a cacophony of multilingual patter, of children's yelling, of vendors' calls, but above all it's the even rhythm of the Zikr, or remembrance of Allah, that fills the northern end of Mao Jie, or Mao Street. The chants spill forth from the Madina supermarket, where Adnan Hameed stacks generously laden shelves (dried fish from Malaysia, Turkish lime leaves, endless sacks of flour and rice). From the outside, the supermarket looks small and tight, but once inside the long, cavernous interior draws you further and deeper: past a halal butcher, a fully-stocked deli and on, through a metal door, to the stairs that leads to the Anwar-e-Madina mosque.

Here, somehow, there's room for 400 worshippers.

Adnan calls himself Pakistani, though it's almost 35 years since his grandfather first came to this provincial-feeling city and started selling clothes door to door in a small town that is now part of its sprawling outskirts. Today the supermarket is one of three businesses the family owns in the area.

Mao Jie is home to one emporium of globalised choice after another. An airy internet cafe doubles as a kiosk for cut-price phone cards, DVDs and Chinese editions of Cosmo and Vogue. Next door, at Super Crystal, the shelves groan under the weight of the Ghanaian cassava and the enormous white sacks of pounded yam. Even the toothpaste and the Cadbury hot chocolate are imported from Africa.

A few doors along, Cynthia Dortie - originally from Nigeria - ushers a young woman into her purple-lit hairdressing salon cum money transfer centre, where the walls are coming down with hair extensions in packets adorned with the smiling faces of African women.

Business is slow at this time of year, Cynthia says. But her location and her prices - as much as four times lower than elsewhere in the city - keep the place afloat. She likes the spirit around here: unlike the more homogenous districts around Gua fu Jie - a chic, upmarket boulevard on the other side of town - Mao Jie and its surrounding area seem to capture the world in one place. "This is a place where you meet different cultures, different people from different countries, and different characters as well. Chinese, Indians, Nigerians, Caribbeans: all over the world, you meet them here. It's a great place to be."

AND YET, IN a way, the place is not to be. Dublin's Moore Street, or Mao Jie to the city's Chinese, is in its final throes. Earlier this week, the first group of tenants vacated their shops in advance of the demolition that is to clear the way for a large-scale redevelopment of the street. And with rents due to rise to the sort of prohibitive levels already sought around Gua fu Jie, or Grafton Street, few expect to return.

But for all that, there is an inescapable sense of irreversibility about the ethnic and cultural plurality that Moore Street has come to stand for, this stretch that was once the epitome of the old city's peculiarities now a symbol for all that has changed in the country at large.

And while Moore Street offers an exaggerated version of multicultural, multi-ethnic Ireland, we take it for granted in much the same way that we do the services of the Lithuanian carpenter, the halting exchanges with the Chinese shop assistant or the care of the Filipina nurse.

All are functions of the same dynamic: in a decade and a half of vigorous immigration, a country that was until recently a serial exporter of youth has joined the ranks of Europe's most cosmopolitan magnet-states. Since 1990, people from more than 150 countries have settled in Ireland, bringing with them a new range of religions, cultures and experiences: a nation of notorious monoglots now encompasses almost 170 languages, from Acholi to Zulu. Their presence is felt in every school, church, corner shop and community centre in the country. And north of the Border, where almost one in eight applicants to join the police service is Polish and where Hong Kong-born Anna Lo was elected to the Stormont Assembly last week, the same process is leavening the landscape of "post-conflict" communities.

THE FLUIDITY OF migrants' movements makes the extent of Ireland's diversity difficult to assess: the State has no way of knowing how many immigrants are here, where they come from or what they are doing here. The imminent release of data from last year's census, however, will throw some light into the statistical vacuum.

It is likely to show that more than 10 per cent of us - more than ever before - were born outside Ireland, bringing this country to a level of immigration that other European states took decades to reach. It will corroborate the contours of a picture pieced together through countless other studies, and it will invite the conclusion that this most recent wave of immigration since the 1990s has fed into a wider social and demographic revolution set in train by the economy's surge, natural population growth (due to more births and fewer deaths), and the return of yesterday's emigrants - the Irish, of course, being among our biggest immigrant contingents. In other words, it will confirm what we already know.

But the challenge of incorporating newcomers awaits. As Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, chairwoman of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, has said, there is limited knowledge of Ireland's immigrants; how long they stay, where they work, or the health, housing and familial problems they face. What brings them to Ireland? What do they leave behind? Will they remain? And each question answered is another one posed. What will the hyphenated identities that will presumably be those of second-generation Irish citizens with roots in Congo, China or the Philippines mean for conventional understandings of Irishness? Is there a balance to be struck between the demands of social cohesion and respect for cultural identities? And if there is a choice for policy-makers, is it a binary call between coercive assimilationism and a fragmented form of multiculturalism that recognises the autonomy of each culture and the commonality of none? Alternatively, does any of this matter? Considering that Ireland has taken in large numbers of newcomers with relative ease over the past decade, does the insistence that debate take place only reinforce the division between Us and Them, by presenting immigration as an "issue" that needs to be "addressed" or, decoded, as a problem that needs to be resolved?

Such is the view, for instance, of Dr Ronit Lentin of Trinity College Dublin's sociology department. "There are a lot of questions which could have been differently approached if they weren't posed from the very beginning as world-shattering problems. In 1992 we had 39 asylum seekers. It grew to 11,634 in 2002. When they started coming in discernible numbers, from the very beginning, we had a 'refugee problem'. Now the point is, we could have said, 'isn't this great? Ireland, at long last, is a fantastic place to come to . . . ' Configure this as a problem and people begin to think of it as a problem," she says.

SO FRAUGHT IS the subject that public discussion of immigration remains stilted and sporadic, so much so that society has not yet agreed upon a vocabulary in which to frame talk of newcomers (or is it foreign nationals? Non-nationals? Or aliens?).

What debate there is remains couched broadly in the language of economics and, argued the playwright Gerry Stembridge last week, the one group generally missing from the conversation are immigrants themselves.

Stembridge derided the State's plámás towards immigrants, depicting its stance as grudging in a way that was redolent of the Craggy Island school of cultural exchange ("Look at them there . . . The Chinese: a great bunch of lads"). "The Government, indeed the whole political class, seems to feel that with immigrants being so busy working before dawn and long after dark, they shouldn't be further imposed on by asking them to air their views on how the Ireland of the future might develop, on what they want from their adopted country, or what their children will want from the country that will be theirs in 20 or 25 years' time," Stembridge said.

In the conversational hollow, myth and misunderstanding flourish. Though economic statistics broadly show that Irish workers are not losing out to eastern Europeans for low-paid labour, many perceive it differently. There continues to be a keen public focus on asylum seekers, though only 4,314 people sought refugee status here last year - the lowest figure in almost a decade. Rights are attributed to them that don't exist. They are rumoured to be given free cars, mobile phones, and better houses. They are presumed to be more likely to die on the roads and to have criminal records. And though the evidence might upset each assumption in turn, perceptions - or prejudice - can matter more than reality.

So far, no political grouping has made serious progress by promoting a harsh line on immigration, but public anxiety and ambivalence towards immigration appear to be widespread and, as Declan Kiberd argues, there persists an unspoken but popular fear that the current affluence, like sunny weather, will never last and that, when it goes, the hungry immigrants will remain.

Evidence of mixed feelings abounds. In November last year, the steering group of the National Action Plan Against Racism published the results of a survey that appeared to suggest that attitudes towards immigrants had softened: only 13 per cent of respondents said they had witnessed racism or racist behaviour. But there were also apparent contradictions: while 58 per cent said they did not feel insecure about the presence of so many newcomers, 45 per cent went on to declare themselves "very concerned or somewhat concerned" about the freedom of movement brought about by EU enlargement.

And newcomers see hostility where natives do not. A week after the Action Plan's survey, a poll of immigrants' attitudes conducted by the ESRI - and one that excluded refugees, student visa holders and illegal immigrants, at that - found that 35 per cent of recent immigrants say they have been insulted, threatened or harassed in public because of their national origin. For black Africans the figure was higher: 53 per cent of them reported some form of harassment on the street or on public transport.

PETER SUTHERLAND, THE UN's special representative on migration, says that the State's economy would collapse were it not for immigration. But there is also a need to "get our act together" by gathering better information, co-ordinating policy, challenging falsehoods and learning from international experience.

"It really is becoming a key issue of our time: more for Ireland, perhaps, than almost anywhere, because if you look at the total percentage, I think it's about 10.6 per cent now," he says. "If you look at the speed with which this has happened, and you extrapolate from the present into the future, the statistics here will be very challenging very quickly."

Those challenges fall two ways, according to Dr Jean-Pierre Eyanga Ekumeloko of Integrating Ireland, for integration will involve reciprocal moves from newcomer and native. "The group has some duties - to open doors, to accept the newcomer, to put in place [ the means] that the new person can access different services and express himself or herself, and so on. But the newcomer also has some duties and responsibilities: to do everything to communicate with local people, to understand how local people live, to do everything to contribute for a better future for the community . . . As a result, a totally new group, a new community which is different from what it was, emerges. So from integration, the result is not what was before. If Ireland integrates newcomers, Ireland shouldn't expect to be as it used to be in 1970 or 1980." This amounts to a redefinition of Irish society, he says, and one that is already under way.

In an address given last year to a forum of immigrants' groups, John Haskins of the Reception and Integration Agency raised the same question, suggesting that immigration forces self-assessment on the host as well as the migrant.

What is meant by the idea of Irishness, he asked. "Or does it mean anything? Because if we are talking about integration, we have to talk about integrating into something. So are we integrating into some kind of pan-European abstract concept? Or is there something around us worthwhile integrating into, which is in some sense Irish and can be described in Irish terms?" On the wall outside the Madina Asian Food Company on Dublin's Moore Street, a poster flutters in the wind. It's there to promote a recent production of Jimmy Murphy's play The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, performed by an all-African cast, which finished its run at Andrews Lane Studio earlier this month.

The play, centred on the stories of a group of young men who left their homes in the west of Ireland in the 1970s and sailed to England in the hope of making their fortunes and returning home, is a reminder of Ireland's own recent history of emigration, and a comment on the exceptionalist philosophy that sees that experience as unique, comparable to nowhere else.

On the poster there's a photograph of three black men dressed in red tartan kilts striding purposefully across a city street. They appear to be walking in step, their heads aloft, each of them wearing a silver crown. The photograph captures them mid-stride, walking towards the viewer. We can see what they're leaving behind, but we can't yet make out where it is they're walking towards.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Gageby Fellowship winner, 2007. His Changing Places series will continue every Wednesday in The Irish Times.

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