Reflections – Sarajevo to Cavtat

I’m not much of a photographer. I lack the skill and patience to capture telling moments in an artful way. Phone-snapping is no substitute. I simply prefer to remember and, if time permits, scribble some notes afterwards. Most of the detail is lost. But the feelings sparked by these memories – whether written or unrecorded – retain their colour. And Bosnia and Croatia are very vivid places. A few fragments from the summer…

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Bajram
We arrived at the end of Ramadan. Despite the heatwave and the fasting, Sarajevo throbbed with joyous energy. After sundown, fairy lights twinkled across the main street. Folk dancers performed their kolo in Baščaršija. The bakeries sold fresh somun and the char-grilled air was balmy.

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Bajram, as Eid is known here, fell on a Friday. For the kids, in particular, it was a memorable experience. Apart from our eldest, who’d lived in Sarajevo when she was a baby, this was the first time they’d been in Bosnia for the festival. They were happy to get involved in the family celebrations. As far as they were concerned, the occasion meant dressing nicely, eating plenty and receiving gifts. Across the world, irrespective of cultural background, the protocol for feast-days seems pretty similar. Although, I have to admit, the gathering of clans they often entail freaks me out a bit. Even in Ireland I’ve always recoiled from what’s considered a ‘traditional Christmas’. Bajram with my in-laws is along those, rather hierarchical, lines.

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Or perhaps it’s just me – the vegetarian foreign feminist who’s been bringing strange ideas to Sarajevo since 1996. An outsider, she makes weird observations. Like noticing how the men do all the sitting while the women serve the food. Or questioning, albeit furtively, who ‘entertains’ the children. Listening to the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ topics of conversation… lamenting, under her breath, those poor calves whose destiny is teletina.

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Maybe she’s hyper-sensitive, maybe she over-interprets. This is purely a personal, filtered snapshot. Still, from talking to Bosnian women, it’s clear they face many challenges relating to gendered expectations. These issues are by no means exclusive to Bosnia. They’re globally relevant. Rigid concepts of culture and strict social institutions breed injustice. Women and men must, together, create fairer alternatives.

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Above the city
Temperatures are in the high thirties. The tinderbox motif is more than mere historical cliché. Wildfires have broken out in Herzegovina. Sarajevo is a hothouse. We hit the hills. Jahorina. Walking along the mountain track, there’s no shelter from the sun. Shadowy valleys simmer under a diaphanous veil of haze. Insect-buzz – bumble bees, wasps, hoverflies, green bottles. Flitting among a riot of flowers, butterflies… speckled, white, brimstone and meadow brown. Nervous grasshoppers spring from our tread as we step off the path. A stunted fir tree offers minimal shade. Beside it, a lonely rose.

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The woodland way is cooler. We go as far as the wishing well. Under the creaking cables of the ski-lift which – to the kids’ delight and my dismay – seems to be functioning.

‘Can we? Please!’

Overhead, pulleys strain.

‘Are you totally insane?’

The children don’t give up. Soon I’m outnumbered, four to one. Even their father, who usually claims he suffers from vertigo, joins their campaign. He wants to relive his youth.

‘There was loads of snow when you went on it. At least that’d break your fall…’

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The scree slope looks merciless. But no-one heeds my muttering. The ‘safety bar’ descends. The gondola rises. Swaying… The distribution of our weight is skewed. What genius came up with these seating arrangements? The younger two are screaming with excitement. The little one is skinny enough to slide out underneath the transparent hood. Cold feet swing in the breeze. Each time we pass the supporting poles the whole contraption rumbles.

‘This is a horror movie!’

Ovo je super!

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At the top, the scenery is phenomenal. But there’s only one thing scarier than going up. It’s the downward lurch. This where the allegedly ‘responsible’ parent resorts to expletives and prayer… So much for Zdravo Marijo – the last line is too ominous, ‘at hour of our death’ etc.. Not appropriate. Better to stick to daily bread and temptation – hoping that we might survive to get some.

‘OH SHIT!’

My offspring snigger at maternal meltdown as the gradient steepens. And this is the radio edit of our tale. To be honest, I’d enjoy the ride if I didn’t have to hang on to the youngest. By sheer miracle, we make it back alive.

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Mount Igman a few days later. Malo Polje – the venue for the ski jump competition in the Winter Olympics of 1984. The commentary box now looks upon an overgrown piste, rusting equipment, a small playground. The sports reporters have long gone. Sadly, they missed my gymnastic debut on a trampoline for kids. A picnic on the fringes of newly cut pasture. The fragrance of haystacks wafts into the forest. Birdsong blends with the rasping of grey-backed crows. The clearing echoes, it prompts reminiscences. The middle child decides that having two parents from troubled places is ‘so awesome’. Or so messed up. These are mountains of dry thunder and grim memories – warring peaks. Still beautiful… still scarred. The mind wanders through the uplands.

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Cavtat
I first swam in the Adriatic with kids displaced by the conflict in the Balkans. Coming from Ireland, it was a thrill to be submerged without the risk of hypothermia. Returning over the years to the Dalmatian coast, I mastered a frog-like version of the breaststroke. Neither athletic nor elegant, but it lets me glide with my head above the surface. A retired couple chat in deeper water, talking about how glorious it is here. How peaceful… ‘nema galame’. The sea absorbs thoughts. Its warmth soothes.

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The children become amphibious. The older two plunge to the seabed. The youngest learns to swim without armbands. Ecstatic, she splashes unaided, stays afloat. Swimming into the sunset until the burnished swell slowly turns to twilight. Climbing rocks into the stars, the trail of a blue moon tapers, shimmering, towards the shore. On the last day, the seascape is four-dimensional. The glittering panorama of the bay gives perspective. Cloudless heights flow into fluid depths. Two decades of hopes and promises are refracted. Tears drown in salty slap-kisses of waves.

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Luck (?) o’ the Irish!

Green… It was everywhere. On coats and caps, on grannies’ headscarves, on kids dressed top to toe in it. Irish flags were aflutter in a stiff east wind. There were dancers jigging along to pipe bands and accordions playing the length of O’Connell Street. A troupe of Yankee majorettes in skimpy skirts raised goose pimples (and eyebrows, no doubt) among even the hardiest of anorak wearers. Sleet fell on these baton-twirlers of the diaspora, the parade’s barest nod to multiculturalism. But new faces were already visible in the Ireland of ‘95 and soon they’d be swept up in this homage to St. Patrick.

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Within a few years, 17 March would feel more like Mardi Gras. Papier-mâché giants would saunter into Dublin to a samba beat. Though back when the Celtic kitty was just a tiger-striped cub, things were still traditional. I can’t remember if there was a formal salute as the nation’s military hardware trundled past the GPO, reminiscent of Red Army surplus. Or if the reservists of the FCA primed their shovels, ready to save Ireland from Klingon attack. But then, I wasn’t paying too much notice. My unpatriotic aim was to circumnavigate the entire show. Instead of simply nipping over the bridge to Aston Quay, I had to go straight ahead until I’d bypassed the spectacle. Pushing through the throngs, I cursed the fifth-century bishop who’d forced this detour. Finally, I was able to cross at the junction of South Great George’s Street, jostle my way down College Green and make it to the Liffey… to the bus stop.

By this time, the crowd was beginning to disperse – drifting off to ‘drown the shamrock’ or heading home with herds of noisy children. The 78A to Ballyfermot was full of face-painted kids licking their tricolour lollipops and sticks of what the Americans call ‘candy cane’ – prosaically known as ‘rock’ on this side of the Atlantic. The stuff of dental ruin, but the boys and girls didn’t seem to care. Buzzing with sugar and the day’s excitement, they laughed and yelled and fought with smaller siblings. Tired mothers roared at them to sit down as the bus juddered to a halt. I swayed to the front, as giddy as the hyperactive lads who were swinging from the handrails. The doors inched open. I leapt out.

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Reason tried to tell me to ‘cop on’. Officially I was going for a lesson… in one of Europe’s newly defined languages. (Spoiler alert/warning: women thinking of embarking on obscure linguistic pursuits, please choose a female teacher if you can!) My mentor was disarming but I was determined to learn Bosnian. And I’d been a diligent student, doing all my homework. Although, unbeknownst to me, it transpired that the assignment I’d been set was designed to test much more than my command of the present tense.

Unaware of this breach of pedagogical ethics, I almost ran to the entrance of the reception centre. Then, innocently (OK… maybe enthusiastically), I let my native-speaking tutor lead me to his room. We started the session with me reading aloud a composition I’d written on the title he’d prescribed: ‘My ordinary day’. It wasn’t world-class literature and my vocabulary was rudimentary, but I felt I’d made a fair stab at the task. Whatever its grammatical mistakes, it impressed the listener. From trivial details about getting up in the morning and going to college to the lines referring to my group of friends, my self-appointed expert in semiotics was riveted by every word. Apparently, his approval stemmed less from my actual effort than from one telling omission. The outstanding feature of my account was the absence of any mention of a ‘meaningful’ other. And that signified…

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OK, let’s just call it a green light. There’s an awful lot of subtext između redova which guys from Sarajevo can easily detect. As I discovered… to my delight! The hypothesis which had freaked me, following our previous classes, was proving correct. It explained the mirth with which I’d skipped through the inner city at midnight, on the way back to my flat. Such risky behaviour couldn’t have been inspired by my out-dated textbook, ‘Colloquial Serbo-Croat’. Now, it seemed due to something other than insanity. My affliction was indeed a different sort of disorder. Though not one to which I thought I’d ever succumb.  Men were a waste of time… weren’t they? Yet why had I kept that photo of us – taken a few days after our first encounter at a protest for Bosnia – tucked inside the cover of my student diary?

Of course, he didn’t know that until… The narrow room illuminated. Sunshine struck through squalls, invaded what had been a sanatorium. It masked the urban decay across Cherry Orchard and, for an instant, the name of the area sounded less incongruous. Rainbows stretched between the showers of hail. And, while there was no sign of leprechaun-hidden crocks of gold at the ends of them, our fates decreed we’d find much dearer treasure.

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Nineteen years have passed and the spectrum of life since has been psychedelic. Our trajectory more roller coaster than arc-en-ciel, we’ve hurtled from exhilarating heights to darkest nadirs. Three ‘little people’ have joined the ride and grown, scarily fast, along the way. Though not yet fourteen, our eldest is already taller than me. Bless her Bosnian genes but, standing beside her, I’m craving stilettos. Just one of the twists on this journey from when Doc Martens were footwear du jour. Et de la nuit…

The evening we made our debut as couple, my style was steel-tipped boots and a woollen patchwork creation crocheted in a palette of shades… including emerald. A perfect garb for Ireland’s feast day. And where better to flaunt it than at a ‘cultural event’ organised to give uninitiated Bosnians an insight into Irish festive rituals – a night of line dancing in the Garda Boat Club. The turbo-country music would’ve driven the druids of yore to sheer despair! To salvage my reputation as a person of any taste, I’ll have to stress that neither I nor my escort partook in this ‘entertainment’. Both of us being left-footed and well… otherwise occupied. Luckily, the frogmen of the elite sub-aqua unit were off-duty so ‘crimes’ of passion went unpoliced. An unlikely setting for a first date but, corny shenanigans aside, Patrick triumphed as our patron of romance.

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Our only surviving picture from 17/3/95… clearly pre-Photoshop!

However, no saintly powers could help me with my bosanski. Once my instructor and I became ‘an item’, our lessons quickly slipped from his schedule… like they’d been nothing more than a ruse for seduction. The double entendre in jezik (language/tongue) was a joke translated with relish by his witty friends. Unfortunately, I’d soon realise that, despite his numerous skills, Don Juan has always lacked an essential quality for good teaching – namely, patience. As a result, my subsequent learning has been largely ad hoc. Still, there’s one phrase I know I acquired on 17 March 1995. Two simple words that have seen the pair of us through our many crises… They mean as much to me now as they did when I first heard them. Even if it sometimes hurts to admit their truth, even if we’re hopeless versions of those younger selves who told each other on a cold St. Patrick’s Day… ‘Volim te’.

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Sretan Dan Svetog Patrika!

Children of many languages

I envy my kids. Having grown up in a monolingual family, I’m green-eyed when I hear my daughters speaking Bosnian. Jealous of their double-barrelled identity – how they slip between worlds and curl their tongues around words that, for me, still have a foreign feel.

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‘Ja sam tvoja učiteljica,’ says my six-year-old, with a strong hint of Sarajevo in her voice. When it’s a question of pronunciation, I couldn’t have a better teacher. Her grammar also flows more smoothly than mine. She mightn’t always get it right, but her inflections seem the product of osmosis. No brainpower wasted deliberating over whether the case-ending is dative or instrumental. Her Bosnian sounds instinctive… sometimes she even uses it in her sleep.

Her ease with her two languages isn’t surprising. Children tend to learn more implicitly than adults. Thus, they appear to acquire second language words and phrases quicker than many older learners. However, the context of learning is also important. The extent to which children are exposed to two (or more) languages and the situations in which they use them can influence the nature of their linguistic development. Growing up in a bilingual environment, communication (with parents, teachers, friends, siblings and other relatives) is likely to draw on both languages in ways that are directly relevant to the child’s experience. As children develop, their knowledge of two languages should gradually become more complex… if their use of each is supported and allowed to diversify in an age-appropriate manner. Second language acquisition in such ‘natural’ contexts is generally more successful than ‘instructed’ learning, typically confined to lessons of limited duration held outside the region in which the language is spoken.

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Children from immigrant backgrounds should, therefore, be in a good position to develop bilingual skills. They’re often immersed in an environment in which the dominant language and/or cultural traditions are different to those of their families. Linguistically and socially, they may feel more ‘at home’ in this milieu than parents who grew up abroad. But at what cost…? ‘Minority’ languages and cultures can be rendered inaudible under the volume of the ‘majority’ voice. Certainly, to reach their full potential, children require a thorough knowledge of the language and cultural codes of the society in which they live. However, this should complement – not conflict with – their learning from extra-curricular sources, such as home, extended family and community. Integration must be a two-way process, one that fosters intercultural understanding. Shameful cases of racial profiling, involving Roma children in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, have recently highlighted the need to respect families’ home cultures and languages. These can contribute to and challenge prevailing discourse. Negotiation may be necessary, but this can be enriching… for everyone.

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Let’s take a look, then, at practical ways to support children’s home languages. This is an issue central to my research field so I ought to have a few answers! There are many experts in this area whose work I’d recommend to anyone who might be interested in reading further (please see the websites mentioned at the end of this post). But, for now, I want to keep things jargon-free. As throughout my blog, I’ll also illustrate some points from my own experience. The ideas I’m offering here are written more from the perspective of a parent than a postdoc.

Much advice exists as to ‘best practice’ in the raising of bilingual children. Sometimes, though, I find it can sound a bit too prescriptive. Or it gives the impression that bilingualism is state of perfect fluency which can be seamlessly achieved. This can risk demotivating parents, especially when progress doesn’t seem as steady as they may hope. Plus the literature often focusses on internationally ‘prestigious’ languages – ones that have an economic value. Unlike, for example, Bosnian, which – despite its alluring musicality – couldn’t be described as ‘lucrative’. On-line suggestions can consequently appear ‘ivory towerish’ or read with the saccharine ring of the ‘model parent’ who believes that Mandarin lessons are just what his/her toddler needs as a head-start en route to Harvard. Nevertheless, studies across the world, conducted in diverse social contexts, have proven the merit of approaches to learning which activate children’s plurilingual repertoires.

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Efforts that bring together family, school and community, have been found effective in sustaining the home languages of children from immigrant backgrounds. Indeed, in such cases, they can be particularly necessary, since mother tongue attrition is high when kids are being educated primarily through the society’s ‘majority’ language. Home language maintenance initiatives can thus combat the risk of linguistic loss and allow the children of immigrant parents to avail of the many advantages of bilingualism. These include:

  • Enhanced capacity to learn other languages.
  • Better problem-solving skills, due to more flexible thinking. This can be very useful when learning school subjects such as maths.
  • Greater ease in overall literacy development – reading and writing skills can transfer between the child’s two languages. Children who are literate in their home language have shown to be more adept at developing ‘biliteracy’.

I’ll end with a few tips for parents whose kids are growing up with two languages, especially when this dynamic results from immigration. These thoughts are followed by a short and ‘scary’ movie! Here, I’ll use the terms ‘home’, ‘heritage’ and ‘minority’ languages interchangeably and the ideas I’ll outline are as applicable to multilingual as to bilingual families. For additional research on this theme, check out the web-links below.

1. Use home languages!

If you’re a native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language, always use your mother ​tongue with your child. Our native language comes most naturally to us. It enables us to express affection in ways that might be language-specific. For example, Slavic diminutives to indicate fondness, such as the Bosnian -ica and -ić suffixes, lose some of their feeling when translated into English. Our native language also conveys cultural concepts. From the names of festivals and practices associated with them, to proverbs, abstract values and words for family members. In Bosnian, for instance, an intricate network of terms is used for the identification of aunts, uncles and cousins.

If you grew up bilingual – for example as a ‘second generation’ immigrant – try to use your ‘heritage’ language (that of your parents) as much you can with your child. As a formative language for you, it can be part of your child’s linguistic and cultural inheritance.

Also, if you’re a native-speaker of the ‘majority’ language, support your partner’s attempts to raise your child bilingually. Learn his/her language yourself and use it, to the best of your abilities, with your child. It doesn’t matter if your proficiency isn’t at ‘native-speaker’ level – don’t let grammatical worries get in the way of talking. You can play a vital role in preserving the ‘minority’ language by making it a channel of communication. From my family’s experience, this is particularly important if the father is the native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language and there isn’t much chance to use it in the immediate community.

2. Don’t expect perfection!

Globally, bilingualism is prevalent over monolingualism, but most people aren’t ‘balanced bilinguals’ who are equally proficient in two languages. The degree to which languages develop depends on contextual factors. In bilingual societies, both languages are prominent in everyday life, education and media. However, when one language is dominant – as English is in a lot of anglophone countries – parents may have to enhance the child’s environment by creating opportunities for bilingualism. But how?

  • Buy or borrow children’s books in the ‘minority’/home language and read these to your child. Help him/her learn to read and write in the language of the home.
  • Songs and DVDs in the home language are fun ways of increasing your child’s exposure to it.
  • Internet games and resources are also very engaging and children can use technology to research school topics through their home languages. Skype provides a handy link to relatives in other countries and, as an audio-visual means of communication, it may be easier for children than telephone calls.
  • Visits to family in places where the home language is spoken. Even if relatives abroad are themselves bilingual, ask them to use their native language with your child.
  • Contact with the home language community within the child’s country of residence can be significant too, although access to this may depend on where families live.
  • If possible, enrol your child in a complementary school. These schools, which offer weekend or evening classes, have been established to support children’s home languages in many states. In Ireland, the Polish community is particularly active in this regard, with over twenty weekend schools teaching Polish language and culture to children across the country. For smaller, more scattered communities, it can be difficult to set up such schools – parental involvement and commitment are the key to their existence. Complementary schools can provide kids with opportunities to use/learn the home language alongside other children, as well as to develop biliteracy and understand more about aspects of their culture.

3. Make home-school links with languages!

Talk to your child in the home language about what they did at school. Help them with school-related words that mightn’t normally enter into ordinary conversation (e.g. subject-specific terms). When children are doing homework, use the home language as a medium for discussion. My kids, with some support, explain maths exercises in both Bosnian and English. They also translate Irish reading passages and spellings into Bosnian.

Encourage teachers and schools to become more aware of children’s home languages and cultures. Schools, in Ireland at least, may differ in the emphasis they place on intercultural education, despite the fact that it’s essential for all children (see my previous post ‘Back to intercultural school’). However, many welcome the involvement of immigrant parents and value their role as representatives of children’s diverse languages. This can enable parents to participate in activities with a home language focus, such as storytelling, which some schools already facilitate. Making connections between complementary and mainstream schools further recognises this fundamental dimension of children’s learning which can otherwise go under the official radar.

4. Don’t give up!

Kids are kids… They learn at different rates. They vary in their learning styles and their personalities. Their motivation fluctuates. From my own family, I’m all too conscious of the problems… Answering their dad in English, when they know the reply in Bosnian, not wanting to ‘stand out’ by speaking a ‘foreign’ language in public, sibling rivalry, accommodating different age and interest levels, living far from other Bosnian children, trying to make the most of our short trips to Sarajevo. The obstacles are many. Yet the benefits are huge – not just the linguistic or general educational advantages of being bilingual, but the cultural and emotional attachments that kids develop through two languages. It requires perseverance… though even the smallest steps forward are positive. So parents – bon courage, good luck, sretno!

SCARY MOVIE in Bosnian (za djecu / for kids)

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Coming up to Halloween, my three daughters wrote and performed a short horror film in Bosnian… Please enjoy!

https://vimeo.com/78005461

If you have any problems opening this link (unfortunately I’m on freebie WordPress without video uploads) I’ve also sent it via Twitter… follow the tweets! Please turn off the HD function if watching on a PC – it should work fine on a smartphone or a tablet.

© Noć Vještica Filmovi

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Also, some useful websites:

Multilingual Learning – Goldsmiths University of London: http://www.gold.ac.uk/clcl/multilingual-learning/

Bilingual Forum Ireland: http://www.bilingualforumireland.com/index.html

Website of Jim Cummins – international expert in bilingual education: http://iteachilearn.org/cummins/

Back to intercultural school

My eldest has survived a full week of early mornings, after the three-month holiday enjoyed by students in Irish secondary schools. My younger pair returned to primary on Thursday. So far, it’s a novelty – the thrill of seeing their friends and moving up a year. Though, at roll-call, their new teachers probably gulp when it comes to their tongue-twister Bosnian surname.

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Each year, I explain its diacritic consonants. The ć that sounds like ‘ch’ and the š that’s said as ‘sh’. The teachers’ initial attempts are often somewhere between a choke and a sneeze but, eventually, they manage it. To their relief, my daughters’ first names are simpler and without confusing letters. A trivial issue, perhaps. As a parent, I’m afraid that I make too big a deal of it. That I’m interrupting the teachers’ busy schedules. Anyone who’s travelled with an Irish name like mine will know how hard it can be for others to get the pronunciation right.

But for children whose identity can be categorised as ‘minority’, it’s important. Living in Ireland as the native half of an Irish-Bosnian couple, I can transcribe my kids’ surname in a way that English-speakers understand. However, for parents from migrant backgrounds that’s less easy. Language barriers, differing norms in relation to education, unfamiliarity with the system – these can intimidate immigrant parents. That’s why a welcoming environment is vital. Small gestures mean a lot… some multilingual signs, teachers checking with parents as to how to say their children’s names. Because parents may be reluctant to make the first move and kids can’t be expected as – I know well from my own – to volunteer information. Even at secondary level, they prefer to let things go rather than ‘sticking out’ among their peer group. Schools must be pro-active.

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In Ireland, many are. But this country is still new to widespread cultural diversity. Its history has been one of emigration, a blight which has returned with the recession. Yet the phenomenon of immigration, which emerged in the mid-nineties and continued throughout the economic boom, hasn’t disappeared. The 2011 census showed a record 12% of Ireland’s population is of ‘non-Irish’ origin. Latest figures for 2013 reveal a renewed rise in the number of immigrants arriving here. Due to family reunification and couples deciding to settle, the proportion of school-age children of ‘non-indigenous’ heritage has increased. Never was there more need for intercultural education.

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While the last few years have seen commendable strategies and guidelines, little has been done to ensure their implementation. On the contrary, this area has been one of the worst affected by a swathe of cutbacks. The provision of language support for children learning English as an additional language has been severely hit, with reductions in designated teaching posts and negligible investment in resources or training. Compounded by other pressures, from rising class sizes to decreasing support for children who have special educational needs, this means intercultural concerns could slide down schools’ priority lists. The voices of children from migrant backgrounds risk going unheard.

How to respond to diversity in these cash-strapped times? Perhaps just by realising the cultural richness which immigrant children bring with them. A trove of knowledge for all – direct exchanges of experiences and opinions can be more memorable than any text-book. Exploring different beliefs… For my kids, it’s part of life in an inter-faith home but it’s also something they know about from visits to Sarajevo, where churches, mosques and synagogues coexist.

              Orthodox Church Mosque in Baščaršija Catholic cathedral

But this kind of information only slips out occasionally at school. Inadvertently, in Irish class, when the teacher asks which foods they like and my daughter says she doesn’t eat ham because her dad’s a Muslim. And another child adds he doesn’t eat burgers because his parents are Hindu. Priceless learning opportunities – coming at no cost, but easily lost.

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Consider language…. The linguistic wealth of Ireland’s immigrant population is a vast and untapped seam of huge potential. Encouraging immigrant children to maintain their home languages, while enabling them to acquire the language(s) of education, has been internationally proven to yield positive results. Even on a small scale, plurilingual approaches, which recognise the range of languages present in the classroom and promote their use to whatever extent possible, can benefit all children in today’s globalised world. Teachers don’t need to be fluent in Lithuanian or Urdu. A willingness to engage with immigrant children and their parents is enough. And maybe, in the process, to learn a few new words!

Geography, history likewise, can be brought to life by children sharing what they know of other places, from being there or hearing stories from relatives. My kids discovered this for themselves, standing in the ever-controversial footsteps of Gavrilo Princip…

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Speaking of polemics, enrolment policies can be a thornier subject. In Ireland, education remains largely denominational – the legacy of colonialism and the post-independence twinning of nationalism and religion. Embracing diversity isn’t enshrined within its structure, although moves are afoot to introduce long overdue reform. To illustrate – a mysterious ‘pork allergy’ is how I’ve explained our Islamo-veggie halal diet when enrolment forms fell short of accounting for cultural difference. However, at a more serious level, institutional discrimination has raised problems for parents in securing school places for their children. Apart from the question of religious affiliation, which can lead to the faith-based favouring of certain applicants, immigrant families have faced other hurdles. In highly populated areas, the practice of enrolling children at primary school from birth (if not before) has best served parents already established in the locality. Outlining draft legislation to regulate school admissions, published on 2 September, the Minister for Education has acknowledged that the current system is ‘very arbitrary and quite unfair’.

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There’s also the need to consider wider causes of exclusion. The worrying trend that, in some urban centres, children from migrant backgrounds are becoming concentrated in particular schools. Increasing incidents of racism, including racial bullying of children, have been documented by research such as that conducted by the Immigrant Council of Ireland. Above all, socio-economic disadvantage is something the state must tackle, as this is the greatest threat to truly equitable and inclusive education.

Much to be done… And Ireland’s report card reads ‘could do better’. But its diversity shines a beacon of hope through the bleakness of austerity. For this country is blessed with a powerful resource – its children of many cultures.

A version of this post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 20 September 2013, available online at: 

http://novovrijeme.ba/back-to-intercultural-school/

Some useful links:

Immigrant Council of Ireland – http://www.immigrantcouncil.ie/ (See Publications section for reports on racism & tool-kit for schools: ‘Pathways to Parental Leadership’)

The Integration Centre – http://www.integrationcentre.ie/ (See Publications section for reports on racism & guide for young people and their families: ‘At Home in Ireland’)