Befriending the Irish who need help in Australia

Bad luck can happen to anyone, and sufficient bad luck can be devastating

A group of retired Irish people living in Sydney, Australia explain the importance of their social group, which meets regularly for internet lessons and games of cards. Video: Ciara Kenny


In an ongoing series for Irish Times Abroad, people involved with Irish communities worldwide share their own migration story and give an insight into the work they do. Here, Roisin Trainor shares her experience of working with the Irish Support Agency in Sydney.

When I first visited Sydney with my family at the age of 11, I fell in love with the glorious sunshine and outdoor lifestyle. I longed for the day when I could return.

Fourteen years later I was welcomed at Sydney airport by my uncle who drove me to his home. There I was greeted with a house full of familiar faces, a room with my name on it, a car to borrow as I pleased and a computer to use until I found work and a place of my own.

My experience of emigrating is not typical, however. Not everyone has the luxury of a security net of family, eager to help you settle in, and who will “not see you stuck” if anything goes wrong. I know now how lucky I was.

Soon after arriving here I came across an advertisement for a job with the Irish Australian Welfare Bureau, as the Irish Support Agency (ISA) was previously known. The organisation has a free resource centre in Bondi for use by anyone in the Irish community, including recent migrants like myself who have just arrived and need computer facilities to find work and accommodation in Sydney.

It also offers advice on building an Australian-style CV and information on what you need to get started. I had not realised how difficult it could be to apply for jobs, set up a tax file number, transfer money into new bank accounts and search for accommodation without advice from someone who has done it before, and without access to free, secure computer and printer facilities.

Outreach worker

This is only a very small part of the support the organisation offers, but it was enough to make me realise its importance. I was offered the job of outreach worker, before moving into the coordinator position a few months later.

The Lucky Country, as Australia is affectionately known, has been just that for many of the successful Irish migrants who have the qualifications, experience and work ethic that Australian employers favour. But bad luck can happen to anyone and sufficient bad luck can be devastating. Health, work, legal, financial or isolation issues can feel overwhelming when you are so far away from your usual support network.

The ISA helps people of all ages, from backpackers and working holiday visa holders to seniors in the community at risk of isolation. The regular seniors’ social groups and computer classes are the highlight of our week. I never tire of hearing tales of the months spent at sea on the way to Australia, the vast array of jobs they held and their first trips back to Ireland, sometimes 40 years later. It is heart-warming to see how much they enjoy mixing with other Irish folk, and how much they care for each other.

We also have a very active befriending service. We match volunteers to seniors in nursing homes who have no family here to visit them. I’m not sure who gets more from the visits, the senior itching for an Irish accent to come in and fill them in on the weekends’ GAA results, or the volunteer who is nostalgic for parents and grandparents back home.

Alongside the Irish Consulate in Sydney, we help individuals and families through difficult times including homelessness, injury, illness and bereavement. We offer practical support to parents coming across from Ireland in distressing circumstances. Often the Irish Support Agency is the main point of contact for police and hospital staff while parents make the journey across.

We ensure that they have transport from the airport and can provide assistance in finding nearby accommodation. Simple, practical things like having an adapter to charge their phone, a notebook to record important information and an Australian telephone sim card and a travel card can make a huge difference.

Counselling support

Later, we offer counselling support to the family, friends and the client themselves to help them process the stressful time.

Administration costs of the agency are supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland’s Emigrant Support Programme (ESP). This means that the money generated from fundraising and donations can go directly to clients and services.

A big focus of our work in recent months has been on mental health. We are establishing a base of Irish counsellors to offer a culturally-aware counselling service for Irish people in New South Wales, including those in hospitals and detention centres. This month we are facilitating mental health first aid training for Irish community groups, with funding from the ESP mission fund. GAA clubs, mothers’ groups, LGBT groups and other Irish organisations will benefit from having a designated mental health first aider to support members experiencing mental health issues.

For those who decide to return to Ireland, there can be a lack of accurate information on the processes and options available to them. In partnership with the Crosscare Migrant Project in Dublin, we hosted our first Returning to Ireland workshop earlier this month, with expert speakers covering topics including tax and superannuation, visas for Australian partners and social welfare entitlements.

We will continue to work with other services and ESP-funded organisations in Australia and Ireland to support our clients and to develop new programmes to meet the changing demands of the Irish community in New South Wales.

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