2014 DukeEngage Letters Home


During the summer of 2014, students in the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ DukeEngage: Dublin program are writing reflections of their time working with immigrants and refugees in the Dublin area which are being published in the weekly Irish publication Metro Eireann.

Immigrant Rights?

DukeEngage 2014-1

An Irish American’s Views From Dublin

By Caitlin McGough

It was a simple question with a short answer, directed towards the Nigerian-born Irish citizen for whom I am working all summer: “Is there no provision for equal protection in Irish law?” The quick, and upon reflection, obvious answer was “no.”

This is what I know:

The Irish know the proper way of saying my surname. Nowhere in America can I go to Starbucks and expect “Caitlin” to be spelled correctly. Despite a month of sunshine before arriving, I blend in on the streets of Dublin, and I feel no stares curious about my ethnicity or country of origin. A Claddagh ring rests on my right hand, the design of which originated near Galway in the west, where my family members saw their last glimpse of home before departing for New York.

I grew up hearing stories of my family’s immigrant past, Irish from my father and Slovak from my mother. As I got older, I learned the history of the places those generations came from. Famine, poverty, and war made the decision to emigrate easier, and the promise of a new life and a safe community in America drew them away. I have read Oscar Wilde, applauded Beckett’s masterpieces, and attended plays at the Gate Theatre. A week ago, I stepped off the plane to receive my second Ireland stamp in my passport.

Dublin looks exactly the same. The lush, rain-fed greenery of St. Stephen’s stands as it has for hundreds of years. There is a comforting permanence in the eternally damp stones of the streets, a sacred mysticism in the houses of worship. The buildings along the canal are right where I remember them.

And yet, Dublin isn’t quite the same. Last time I was a tourist, on a pilgrimage of sorts with my family to the homeland; this time I am working to serve the migrant community. I spend most of my days north of the River Liffey, which is both a geographic and social barrier that tourists only traverse as passengers on double decker sightseeing buses. Historically a region of working class housing, in the past two decades the north side has become home to much of the city’s migrant population. Immigrants stand out on the streets, but there are not enough from any single country to make uniformly homogenous communities within Dublin. For an afternoon I sat with two other students at a café, watching rush hour traffic and listing all the ethnicities we thought we saw: Brazilian, Thai, Polish, Filipino, Nigerian, Chinese, Hispanic, Japanese, Hungarian… Our categories broadened: Asian, Arab, African, South American, Eastern European, Arab again… The streets may look the same, but the faces of Dublin are changing. And to an American, the circumstances are deceptively familiar.

There are superficial similarities between Irish society today and the challenges the US has faced. The current Irish discussion is centered on the principles of equality and integration, as the civil rights agenda in America was 50 years ago. Residents of Ireland are required to vote; however those who have immigrated here are stopped and questioned at the polls based on their accent or the color of their skin. There is a shallow push for integration in many institutions. The Gaelic Athletics Association and the Football Association of Ireland have had their own elaborate integration plans in place for years, yet the will to prioritize those strategies is lacking. In fact, the failure to prioritize and the tendency to ignore the migrant community seem to be the government’s current strategy.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that America did it better, and I am not implying that our battle for equal rights and opportunity is finished. I am saying that cultural context and historical precedent render it shallow to apply one nation’s solutions to another’s unique set of challenges. How would America perceive outsiders today if we had not always been a nation of immigrants? How would we admit to our oppression of others, if we ourselves had historically been the victims of foreign imperialism? And the biggest question – how would the federal government have enforced civil rights legislation without the 14th amendment, which had already been around for a hundred years?

I have been here for less than two weeks. I don’t know how Ireland’s past will determine its treatment of immigrants. I don’t know what the uphill struggle for equality under the law will bring. But I do know this: despite my name, despite my pale complexion, and despite the Claddagh ring on my right hand, I am more a stranger here than the Nigerian-born Irish citizen for whom I am working all summer. And he knows all too well that there is no provision for equal protection in Irish law.

Ethics of Empathy

Photo2-Aidan-400The Volunteer Experience

By Aidan Coleman

The other day, I found myself sitting across from an Irish woman gushing praise and thanks for helping her husband navigate the Irish citizenship process. Suddenly, I felt a small smile grow across my face, my excitement breaking through. The woman walked out the door, leaving behind an empty office, allowing me to contemplate the events of the day.

I had only begun my internship with New Communities Partnership a few days prior, yet I already felt a connection with the people with whom I was working. Most strikingly, I noticed that those coming into our office represented an incredibly diverse group, ranging from Romanian professors to Pakistani athletes. It was easy to see the pervasive nature of the problems imposed by the Irish citizenship process on the migrant community here in Dublin. Consequently, I realized how incredible it was to know that my time here might be able to alleviate some of the pressure that this community encounters.

Still, as I watched that woman walk out of the door, I realized that while I was happy to have had such a positive exchange, I felt that I had not been entirely genuine. I recalled how I had originally wanted to participate in this program because I was excited by the prospect of immersing myself in a new community facing unique circumstances by acting as a volunteer. I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of this community and the problems it faces in the hopes of feeling as if I was not just another foreigner coming in to fix whatever issue I deemed problematic. Rather, I wanted to feel as if I was at home in this foreign city, serving to the best of my abilities.

Yet, by the time I was on my plane coming to Dublin, I admit that I was excited to begin learning, traveling, seeing, and simply being in Ireland for my personal benefit, rather than for the purpose of achieving those goals I had previously set for myself.

Sitting alone in my new office, I feared that, in my excitement, I had overlooked the nature of my time in Dublin. I had spent my first few days in Ireland thinking of all the incredible things I would be able to do. I had been thinking in terms of my experience rather than in terms of the experience I could work to create between the community and myself.

Still, I wondered, did it matter why I came here? Did my intentions affect my work? Why should I worry that some part of me was eager to see the positive impact that this program could have on my own life if the end result was the same as if I had solely worked to foster my relationship with the community in order to better serve it? Is it so wrong that I wanted to experience Ireland as a student, visitor, and volunteer?

Honestly, I still don’t know. I question if my enthusiasm to use this opportunity to explore and immerse myself in Irish culture uses those in need as a means to achieve these goals. If so, does this characterize my actions as a volunteer as inherently unethical? Should I work for others if and only if I know that my original intention is to understand, empathize, and use this empathy to serve? Or is it possible that I might be able to find a balance between the roles I wish to play in a way that does not sacrifice my integrity?

Perhaps it’s optimistic or even a bit naïve of me to say so, but I prefer the latter line of thinking. To feel guilty about being able to enjoy all that Dublin has to offer simply because I have the opportunity to work with its migrant community seems unfair. I think it’d be more mature to embrace this fact and allow myself to experience the city as not just a volunteer, but also as a visitor, student, observer, or any other position that seems appropriate. Moreover, I think embracing these different roles could further enhance my ability to serve.

Yet even in writing those words, I grow skeptical and I begin to consider dissenting arguments. Maybe my understanding of what it means to be a volunteer is misconstrued and serving others should solely be a selfless act, only ever done when fully understanding those whom we serve as a volunteer. And so, I left my office that day feeling conflicted but certain that I would continue to strive to think about my role as a volunteer in more nuanced ways.

Education and Diversity

Redefining “Normal” in the Classroomimage

By Katherine Zhou

I nervously fumbled with my brown paper bag. To my side, my classmates had already started devouring their PB&J sandwiches. They were giggling and chatting, happy to get a break from the monotony of the teacher’s voice.

For the average kindergartener, lunchtime was supposed to be the best part of the day. For me at age five, it was a terrifying experience. As I quietly pulled out my chopsticks, I mulled over how miserable lunch was because I never knew what my mom was going to pack, or worse—how my peers would react to what she packed. I thought of my friends’ crinkled noses at the “smelly” spiced radish and rice dish in my lunch last week. And their raised eyebrows at the “weird” chicken and black fungus stew the week before. Dishes delicious to me were disgusting to my peers. Suddenly, I wasn’t hungry anymore. I reached into my bag, futilely praying that my mom had bought me a normal Lunchables box. That’s all I wanted my lunch to be: normal.

Growing up as the token Asian American student in my elementary school class, I inevitably got a taste of what it was like to be different from my peers. As I grew older and moved to more racially diverse environments, I eventually outgrew my fear of differences between my peers and myself. But when I found out that I would be going to Ireland for DukeEngage, I viewed my excitement for the trip with a grain of salt. I had always known in the back of my mind that Ireland was considerably less racially heterogeneous than the home that I had gotten used to at Duke. The more I learned about Dublin’s recent history of racial discrimination against immigrants and refugees, the more wary I became.

After spending about three weeks in Ireland, I’ve noticed that where I am in the city really factors into how I feel. There are many wealthier parts of town where I notice that I stand out in the primarily white backdrop. It is in those places that I get curious looks and questions that automatically assume my Chinese heritage. But there are also other poorer areas that are quite diverse. In those places, I feel completely comfortable in my own skin—as if I can blend in without having to field any assumptions about my ethnicity. It is those moments when I see such diversity and acceptance that make me feel so much more hopeful for the future demographic changes in Ireland.

One of those moments occurred when I was at work. Currently, I volunteer in the national office of Educate Together, a non-governmental organization that functions as the patron body of a growing network of schools. In a country where 96% of all schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church, Educate Together shattered a precedent when it not only opened its doors to students of all ethnicities, gender, and religion, but also advocated its charter of tolerance for all children. Many of the students at Educate Together schools are either immigrants or children of immigrants. There are also many students in the system that identify as white Irish citizens. While the Educate Together family is by no means an accurate proportional representation of the current, mainstream Irish demographic, it is still encouraging to know that there are students who are learning through a multicultural perspective. After all, it only takes a few people in society to spread a message and redefine normalcy.

Last week, I got the chance to visit an Educate Together primary school. As I walked through the halls, I was amazed by the decorations on the walls – posters that highlighted the festivities of various religions, pictures of traditional attire from different countries, and stories written by the students about their families. The diversity permeating through the corridors was almost overwhelming for me. The principal who was giving me a tour of the school turned around and asked what I thought. After thinking a bit, I admitted, “I wish I had gone to a school like this.” Finally, as we rounded the corner, we passed a room of third-level students who were eating lunch. I stopped walking and peered inside. What I saw was absolutely beautiful. The menu of packed lunches that day included couscous, rice, and even the good ‘ole PB&J sandwich. There were no crinkled noses and raised eyebrows—only energetic chatter and happy laughter. And for every one of these students, their lunches were what they should be. Normal.

Narratives of Discrimination

Understanding Difference and Discrimination, at Home and AbroadKomalKinger

By Komal Kinger

“So where are you from?” asked an elderly gentleman who sat down next to me on the bus. Having been in Dublin for four weeks already, I was beginning to get accustomed to this line of questioning, already knowing the direction the conversation would take.

“From the States,” I replied, bracing myself for the next question.

“But… where are you from? Your parents…?”

“India,” I explained as he nodded in agreement, satisfied with the answer, and went back to his own thoughts.

As part of the DukeEngage Dublin program, my classmates and I are staying in the heart of the city for eight weeks, working in different placements to understand and learn about the migrant and refugee population in Ireland. I have been working at Cairde, a health information and advocacy center that challenges ethnic minority health inequalities. To prepare us for our placements, our program directors hosted a series of meetings to discuss the migrant and refugee population, discrimination and ethnic minority inequalities, and the history of immigration in a country that is better known for its emigration. While working at Cairde, I realized that despite the invaluable discussions, speakers and books that we read, I was still utterly shocked when during my second week a client walked in, crying inconsolably, describing her discriminatory experience at the doctor. Between her crying and hysteria we were able to piece together a situation that seemed all too familiar: a woman went to visit a new GP only to be refused treatment and kicked out of the office because she was not white but African.

While the Cairde staff began to professionally handle the situation and recommend courses of action, I sat there dumbfounded. Even though I had read about such instances, seeing the emotionally distraught African-born Irish citizen breaking down hit me like a punch to the stomach. Why do such situations occur? Why is there still discrimination when we all are human and deserve equal rights? And for some reason, I couldn’t help but relate this situation back home. This sort of discrimination would have never happened in the U.S., I thought. Yet a quick Google search and the six o’clock news reminded me otherwise. Although the United States has more legislation conferring equal rights to immigrants than in legislation in Ireland, discrimination is still prevalent in the United States. Up until last year, for example, a small town in Georgia still hosted segregated proms for their African American and white students. Freakonomics, a non-fiction book highlighting the link between economic research and underlying incentives, dedicated a chapter to discussing the impact of having “white” versus “black” names on job applications in which those with more “white” names had a higher chance of receiving a call for a job interview. Earlier this year Donald Sterling, owner of the professional NBA Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, made the headlines for imploring his half-black, half-Mexican girlfriend not to associate with African Americans. There are legal provisions to ensure that equal rights aren’t violated, and while racial tensions have decreased, they still remain.

Although the conversation with my fellow bus passenger was harmless, my ethnicity and citizenship confirmed a set of preconceived notions that seemed to be sufficient enough for him to explain what kind of person I am. How is that any different than blatant discrimination in which the woman was refused treatment because she was African, with the doctor assuming that the color of her skin indicated a poor economic status and “dirty” diseases? More importantly, why is this situation more prevalent in Ireland than in the United States? A country that is perhaps better known for its emigration, Ireland has seen an enormous increase in immigration over the last twenty years. The country’s demographics have changed from a homogenous white and Catholic population to a more culturally and religiously diverse community. While the United States has already experienced this cycle of immigration and continues to do so, Ireland is adjusting to this new influx of diversity and attempting to identify immigrants and their personalities in terms of their country of origin. While the United States is known as a melting pot in terms of integration, Ireland is still compared to a salad bowl, where different cultures and ethnicities are juxtaposed but do not integrate. So although my time in Dublin and work at Cairde will end in four weeks, my enthusiasm and passion in social justice and immigrant and refugee rights has just begun and will continue in the United States. 

Obstacles to Assimilation

Photo4-Dre-400The Climb

By Dre Bennett

A month ago, I sat alone in a van filled with teenagers, just listening to music on my iPhone and looking at the window in awe of the incredible Irish landscape. It was my second day working at the summer school Refugee Access Program (RAP), and we were headed out to Dalkey, about 30 minutes outside of Dublin, for a rock-climbing activity. I looked around the van for a moment and saw a group of kids engaged in conversation with one another, laughing and smiling. I took out my headphones and realized that I couldn’t understand anything being said.

What was strange was that at the same time that I was glad to see all of the kids excited about this new experience, I felt isolated. Here I was, a 19-year-old African American male, sitting in a van in Ireland with slightly younger teenagers who were from places such as Congo, Algeria, and Thailand. I made efforts to talk to a couple of girls from Zimbabwe sitting nearby. Maybe it was because of my Southern accent, or maybe because it was only our second day together, but the girls were shy and seemingly reluctant to carry on any kind of conversation with me, a complete stranger.

And I wondered, why should they have to go out of their comfort zone just to make me feel better? Isn’t that supposed to be my job?

It was at that moment that I questioned my potential effectiveness in my role at the RAP program. I had walked in the first day with the idea that I would quickly be able to befriend the kids and assist them with developing their English language skills, as well as basic life skills that people often take for granted, like knowing how to ask for help or how to form a personal opinion in a debate and defend that opinion, or even just how to make friends in an Irish secondary school. But now I felt that if I couldn’t reach out to them through language, I could never be a mentor to any of them, let alone teach them anything worth knowing.

Before I could think more about it, we began climbing. There was only one kid who was willing to be the first victim of the rock-wall. Admittedly, this 15-year-old Congolese boy was a much better climber than anyone else that day. He faced few obstacles on his way up. However, his journey down was a different story. He had never been shown how to scale down a rock-wall before.

During his climb, he received jeers from other kids because of his perceived cocky attitude. But when everyone realized that he was not as confident about his climb down, the students began to yell bits of advice and encouragement in broken English. When he finally reached the bottom, I was one of the first to greet him with congratulations and admiration. With his heavy accent, he said, “Everything was a lot easier once I realized that it was only fear that was keeping me from coming down. Once I let go of my fear, the climb was easy.”

Fear. I realized that was the only barrier that had kept me from connecting with the kids up to that point. Not our difference in languages, but fear. I wasn’t afraid of disappointing them, but insecure in feeling like I couldn’t relate.

But I know I’m hardly the only one battling this inability to get comfortable. The same group of kids, with whom I initially felt so uncomfortable, deals with this problem all the time. Dublin’s community, while very rapidly diversifying, is still quite reluctant to greet incoming migrants with the same warm welcome that I’ve received here as an American tourist. Spaces like RAP are important as they provide kids with the chance to speak to each other in their own languages and to be around others who can relate to their situation.

So what is it that is actually keeping these migrants from being able to assimilate into Irish culture? Is it language? Or even policies surrounding the process of obtaining citizenship, asylum, or refugee status? From my experiences, I find it difficult to believe that it is anything more than a personal issue. I don’t mean an issue for immigrants to open themselves up to the people of this city. I found evidence against that idea on my rock-climbing trip, where students eventually bombarded me with questions about where I was from, what my family was like, and how I was able to scale down the wall so easily. The issue doesn’t lie with the personalities of the immigrants, but perhaps with the opinions of the native Irish.

Like the Congolese student’s climb up the rock wall, Ireland’s initial acceptance of a few new people from different parts of the world seemed to be easier in the sense that it received little notice from the public. It is the climb down, the acceptance of these new cultures and people as part of their own, which seems like the hard part. Maybe then it’s just a matter of letting go of that fear and insecurity that will make the climb back that much easier.

The Meaning of Citizenship

Photo5-Natasha-400The Nature of Nationality

By Natasha Sakraney

“You’re helping people get Irish citizenship? Who on earth would want that?!” That, with varying degrees of crudeness, has been the predominant response from the Irish people to whom I describe my internship at the Citizenship Application Support Service Office of New Communities Partnership this summer.

I’ve perceived this lack of national pride extending beyond just the native Irish, as my job has given me the opportunity to work with people of all different nationalities who live in Dublin. People hailing from Thailand to Iraq to Canada to Burundi come to our office for assistance navigating the application process for Irish citizenship. When clients first come in, we have them fill out a contact sheet, which requests some information including the person’s nationality. Often people are hesitant to fill that question out and leave it blank until I ask them about their country of origin. Now, clearly the sample is completely biased as I am interacting solely with people who desire to give up their citizenship in favor of an Irish passport. However, this juxtaposition is significant: foreigners mute expression of their nationality in their efforts to become Irish citizens, while the native Irish tend to have a rather apathetic and sarcastic view about their own citizenship.

With every client who sends his or her citizenship application from our office, the diversity of Ireland and the Irish people increases. As immigration brings explosions of racial diversity, the idea of what it means to be Irish is evolving. However, the growth of a diverse citizenry hardly constitutes true integration, and this process will not occur overnight. I’ve seen this struggle to accept change even in my own family. When my parents got married, my Indian grandmother almost refused to attend the wedding in protest of my father marrying a white, American woman. Today, that same grandmother absolutely adores my mother. And after ten years of marriage, my father decided give up his Indian passport and apply for US citizenship based on his marriage.

Almost every day, I work with a client who is applying for citizenship based on their marriage to an Irish citizen. In these cases, the applicant must have lived in Ireland for at least three years. Some are truly passionate about Ireland and have embraced the culture, customs, and even the accent, while others have remained isolated in immigrant communities and struggle to even speak English. Yet they all come in with the desire to hold an Irish passport and join nationalities with their spouse, as my parents once did.

After spending seven weeks in Dublin, I have felt more hyper-aware of my mixed race background than I normally do. Although it is something I have always embraced as a part of my identity, the questions I have received about where I come from and why I am here have made me feel slightly self-conscious. In addition to their bemusement with the services our office provides, the inquisitive Irish of Dublin have suggested everything from South American to Russian to Turkish as labels for my ethnicity. In the US and at Duke, people occasionally ask me about my background out of curiosity, but diversity is such an integral part of American culture that people tend to be not quite as overtly interested.

What is it about Dublin that has made me so conscious of my own ethnicity? My upbringing has been privileged; I haven’t had to struggle to overcome racial discrimination. Why should the fact that I am half Indian feel like such an important part of who I am? Perhaps in some way it makes me feel unique. Or maybe it makes me feel like I have a more worldly perspective than others. But am I really so unique or worldly? In reality, I’m just as typically American and probably more sheltered then many of my peers. This destabilization of my lifelong concept of my ethnicity has made me question what it means to be a citizen and to actively embrace the nationality of one’s country.

Citizenship gives people a sense of belonging, a home. But at this point in my life, I really don’t yet know where my final “home” will be, whether it will be within the United States or somewhere else. I can hardly redefine my national identity based on eight weeks in Ireland, but my experience of working with clients who have such a shifting sense of nationality has made me think about what American citizenship coupled with a mixed race background truly means. And perhaps these thoughts are the first steps toward being an active citizen, toward not merely embracing my ethnicity as a fun fact to share but acknowledging the underlying insecurities behind it.

Immigrant Employment and Integration

Photo-7-Kaila-400By Kaila Perez

Being in Dublin this summer has made me realize that integration—no matter where— is a two-way street.

Coming into Duke as a student-athlete and having a team to fall back on, I experienced less pressure to make friends and immerse myself in Duke’s social culture. I had strong ties to my friends, family, and high school experience, and I never felt inclined to take part in the regimented and superficial conversations that took place during events like Orientation Week. This undoubtedly took a toll on my social integration.

In Dublin, I did research for the Dublin City Council Office for Integration for a project designed by the Council of Europe’s Diversity in the Economy and Local Integration (DELI) program. In interviewing different migrant entrepreneurs, I noticed a strong emphasis on the importance of making an effort and “being nitty-gritty.” Breaking into a network can be incredibly hard, especially in a small island country like Ireland where ideas of upbringing and affluence can be inferred by one’s last name. However, there are English courses, networking groups, and CV and business plan development courses that do exist; some are even tailored to migrants. These emphases and difficulties resonated with my own experience with integration. Seeing what factors contributed to the success of migrant entrepreneurs, I’ve come to see how crucial it is to make an effort made when entering a new community. Integration will not happen naturally.

Whether or not start-up and business support resources are as accessible as they could be for migrants is a different debate. The Dublin City Council Local Enterprise Board created a pamphlet—available in multiple languages—that consolidates different resources. Though well done, it is not well distributed, which I think exposes a gap in Dublin’s integration strategy and greater commitment to creating spaces conducive to migrant happiness. But beyond increasing access, Dublin can improve integration by controlling the development of social categorization and stereotyping against migrants and other newcomers.

For me, being a student-athlete was initially liberating—it tapped into new levels of confidence and self-worth. However, just this summer, I decided to quit the rowing team. Weird, right? But I’d realized the most prided thing about my identity had become the only part of my identity; my favorite thing about Duke had become the only thing I knew about Duke. I was so absorbed in the idea of being a student-athlete that I’d internalized the stereotypes of student-athletes. As an athlete I felt like I was expected to be constantly exhausted. I let the comfort of my Duke-issued Nike quarter-zip fleece justify my reason for taking an “easy-A” class. My lack of effort to socialize and get further involved with campus life beyond athletics made me disconnect from Duke at large.

A primary reason for my decision to quit was about imagining my future: I wanted a multi-dimensional Duke experience, something more than just striving to row fast and survive classes. Two weeks ago, here in Dublin, I met a woman who was a counselor for a highly selective mentor program for migrant job-seekers. I felt like these people were similar to me in that they were striving for something beyond themselves, wanting to pave their own paths. “They had degrees—masters, PhDs—and they still felt like they were incapable of getting a job and that they weren’t good enough,” the counselor told me. “It turns out education doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s just that element of feeling different, feeling like the other, feeling like you don’t fit in, that results in feeling like you aren’t suitable for the job.”

Many migrants feel overly categorized—socially, ethnically, culturally—and that influences their self-perception, which in turn influences confidence and ambition. In the same sense, within Duke, there are classifications that exist—athletes, non-athletes, sorority girls, frat boys, independents, etc.— that have the capacity to liberate or limit people on an individual level. If there is one thing I learned through my research in Dublin, it is that confidence is a huge determining factor in someone’s approach to life. It is essential to acknowledge its sensitivity to social interactions or structures and expectation.

While part of me wants the analogy between integrating into Duke as a student-athlete and integrating into Dublin as a migrant to hold, I know there are key differences. Duke has provided me with the opportunity to make the decision to leave my (smaller) Duke athletic community. And when I graduate, no matter my campus niche, I’ll still leave with a Duke degree. For migrants integrating into Dublin, this is their life. For entrepreneurs, there is far more risk in quitting their jobs and committing to starting businesses. If integration is indeed a two-way street, legally and socially, Dublin has not yet fully constructed a way for migrants. For both ways to hold, both parties must make an effort.