Author and expert on Irish wildlife Niall Mac Coitir is giving a group of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants a talk on the flowers and trees in Ireland associated with various festivals. Showing close-up photographs of ash, holly and hawthorn trees, blackberries and elderberries, he explains their connections to May Day, Christmas, Halloween and other seasonal events.
The Ukrainian interpreter seeks help from her compatriots with the translations of names of these well-known trees and berries and there is a flurry of conversation as people seek the words in their own language. The Ukrainian women in the audience promise to chat more about favourite wild foods, flowers and trees associated with festivals in their country later in the day.
This is just one of many small moments of genuine cultural exchange at a recent event in the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, organised by Sanctuary in Nature & Heritage.
Muhammad Achour is the co-director of the organisation, which was founded by journalist and author Paddy Woodworth to create opportunities for new arrivals here to learn about Ireland’s environment while sharing stories about nature and heritage of their own countries.
Originally from Aleppo, Syria, Achour first came to Ireland in 2015 to join his brother as part of the Syrian Humanitarian Admissions Programme. He began volunteering with Places of Sanctuary, a network of groups in towns, cities and local communities which promote a culture of welcome and inclusivity for newcomers.
“It started with me going with my brother and his friend to the Baleskin Reception Centre in North Dublin to help people living there to find schools and shops. Then I got involved with Universities of Sanctuary, which aims to make universities a welcoming environment for migrants as well as offering scholarships to asylum seekers and refugees,” explains Achour, who has studied architecture at University College Dublin and is a teaching assistant at Dublin City University.
Earlier this year, Achour was awarded funding from the Heritage Council and other agencies to run more Sanctuary in Nature & Heritage events throughout Ireland. The events were initially all Dublin-based but, more recently, Sanctuary in Nature & Heritage has brought refugees and migrants together with local communities in Galway, Cork and Wicklow. Previous outings were to locations including Castletown House, Newgrange megalithic tombs, the Chester Beatty Library and Newbridge House and Farm.
It’s not always easy to for participants to speak about the heritage of their home country – especially if it has been lost or destroyed by war and conflict. At the Phoenix Park event, Achour speaks about the Aleppo cotton festival which, prior to the war in Syria, attracted vast crowds to the city. Known as the “white gold of Aleppo”, cotton sold in markets drew merchants from all over the world. “The festival, which started in 1956, stopped in 2011, started again in 2019 – but didn’t continue. I hope to see it again,” says Achour.
Saeeda Syed, who works for the United Nations International Organization for Migration in Dublin, is a volunteer with Sanctuary in Nature & Heritage. Originally from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pashtun or KPK) region of Pakistan, her family now lives in Afghanistan.
Speaking about how so much of her heritage was destroyed through both the Afghanistan war and regional conflict in Pashtun along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Syed says that what saddened her most was the destruction of the tomb of Rehman Baba. “He was a nationally significant poet whose poetry connected us with a code of life,” she explains.
The path to inclusion is through integration and learning about the countries where people come from— Fiona Duignan, Meath Partnership
Her face lights up when she speaks about her deep connection with Ireland, which began many years ago when an Irish charity in Afghanistan funded her education and that of her sisters. “I don’t feel like a stranger here. I’ve known Irish music and culture since my childhood,” she explains.
At the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre event, Syed gives an overview of the culture of Pakistan and Afghanistan, touching on regional languages, food and customs.
Fiona Duignan works for the Meath Partnership, which through its Interconnect Meath programme co-ordinated transport for the group of migrants who came to the Phoenix Park event. . She says that in Co Meath there are about 2,600 refugees, most of whom are from Ukraine. About 500 people are currently living at Gormanston Park, an accommodation hub in the grounds of Gormanston College.
“The path to inclusion is through integration and learning about the countries where people come from,” says Duignan, who has invited the GAA, traditional Irish musicians and dancers to other intercultural exchange days.
Friends and family members of those volunteering for Sanctuary in Nature & Heritage come to join them for the day. Iffat Batool, who is originally from Pakistan, came to live with her family in Waterford when she was a teenager. “I have visited almost every town and city in Ireland – and I love Tramore and Dungarvan – but I’ve never visited the cities in Pakistan,” she says.
Lorcan Scott, wildlife officer with the Heritage Council, says the State agency is pleased to fund a fulltime post for Achour under the Heritage Stewardship scheme. “We weren’t really reaching these communities in the Heritage Council until we teamed up with Sanctuary in Nature & Heritage,” explains Scott. Following the talk, Scott will accompany the group on a guided tour of the stunning walled garden and parklands of the Phoenix Park to spot some of the resident population of deer.
Liliia Golovata from Berdyansk, Ukraine, who came to Ireland in August 2022 with her husband, says she feels the culture in Ireland is very similar to that at home. “Both countries have struggled against occupation and we have a similar love of freedom,” she says.
Inna Nahasiuk, who arrived in Ireland two weeks previously, is keen to advance her career here. “I’m a circus artist – an aerial gymnast. I’m from Odesa but I have travelled all over the Ukraine and also worked on a cruise ship with my husband. I find the Irish are amazing and kindly people. Even the rainy weather hasn’t made my mood bad,” she says with a smile.
Hashem Hussain, originally from Damascus, Syria, is a volunteer mentor and ambassador for Cities of Sanctuary, a group which promotes a culture of welcome and inclusivity for newcomers through talks in schools and other venues. He says he has learned a lot about Irish heritage by attending the Sanctuary in Nature & Heritage events.
“It is hard to find out about heritage in Ireland without these events,” says Hussain, while also decrying the destruction of beautiful mosques, churches, castles in cities such as Homs and Aleppo in Syria.
As I leave the group through Ashtown Castle’s beautiful walled garden, with its purple flowering artichokes, apple trees decoratively trained along espalier-style supports and richly scented lavender bushes, it’s easy to appreciate the dedicated work put into developing heritage sites in Ireland.
It’s much more difficult to contemplate the enormous tasks that lie ahead in restoring heritage sites ravaged by war in places including Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine.