Report on a study visit to Ireland funded by Erasmus: celebrating BARKA IRELAND 10 years on. 2nd – 6th December 2022

The members of the Barka International Network from Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland and UK celebrated the 10th anniversary of The Barka Ireland Voluntary Reconnections project, which provides assisted return for Central and Eastern European (CEE) migrants to their country of origin by organising a special study visit to Ireland this year.

The Barka Foundation commemorated the anniversary with a conference: “Supporting minority groups in a changing landscape”– with Councillor Hazel Chu representing the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and the Polish Ambassador to Ireland, Mrs Anna Sochańska, attending.

The study visit, founded by Erasmus, stretched over 4 days and provided an excellent opportunity to meet our colleagues from Barka For Mutual Help Ireland, learn about their work, attend the conference and hold the 1st Annual Meeting of the Barka International Network in Dublin.

Friday, 2nd
Part of the UK team, who had arrived earlier, met and greeted colleagues at Dublin Airport who started arriving in the late afternoon and early evening: from Belgium, Poland, The Netherlands and the UK. We even had time for a group photo after the Barka Poland group had arrived!

Saturday, 3rd
In the morning, after a much needed breakfast, we set off to see the cliffs on Howth peninsula (Irish: Binn Éadair, meaning “Éadar’s peak”).

The district, as a whole, occupies the greater part of the peninsula of Howth Head, which forms the northern boundary of Dublin Bay. We had a pleasant walk along the cliffs, saw a commercial fishing harbour and the pier, and did some sightseeing in the village. After that, we had a lunch of traditional fish and chips at The “Bloody Stream” pub. After lunch, we took the Dart train to the Centre of Dublin and then a bus to our hotel.

After the busy half day there, we had the opportunity to rest and prepare for a Live Dance Show with Music and Christmas Dinner at the Arlington Hotel in Dublin.

Sunday, 4th
As Sunday morning greeted us with pouring rain, and we were going to attend Sunday mass celebrated with the intention of Barka Ireland, we decided to take taxis to the Polish church of Virgin Mary, in Ballymun, on the outskirts of Dublin to be there on time. The celebratory mass was conducted by a Polish priest, Krzysztof Mądel, who met the founders of Barka previously. After the mass, three of our leaders had the opportunity to give their testimonies before the congregation of how their lives had changed after they met Barka and how the foundation helped them to turn their lives around.

Then we set off to eat lunch at The Wings restaurant with Anne O’Neil of the Daughters of Charity. We also had a lovely birthday surprise for our CEO, Ewa, and Włodek, a former beneficiary of Barka.

After lunch, we split into two groups and did two hours of sightseeing in the centre of Dublin with professional tour guides. This was the end of a very informative tourism part of our programme. Tired, but happy we hop onto the bus to the hotel, where, after a short rest, we attended the first Annual Meeting of the BARKA INTERNATIONAL NETWORK, entitled “Barka’s International Strategy for Integration”. We discussed important matters concerning the activities of the Barka Foundation in West Europe and Poland and we had an opportunity to talk together about Barka’s mission, goals, aspirations, as well as the long-term strategy for the development of the Foundation. The meeting lasted for three-and-a-half hours and was finished with a quick takeaway dinner.

Monday, 5th
The big day has come to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Barka Ireland at the EPIC – The Irish Emigration Museum. On this occasion, we participated in a special conference. Part of our team took the roll-up banner and conference materials to EPIC, prior to the conference, whereas the remaining part of the group took a bus to the venue to attend the event.

The conference started with welcoming speeches by Barka Ireland’s CEO, Ewa Sadowska-Keough, Councillor Hazel Chu, representing the Mayor of Dublin, and Anna Sochanska, the Polish Ambassador in Dublin. We also presented a short film about the history of the Barka Foundation.

This was followed by the personal testimonies of former Barka beneficiaries Mariusz and Marcin, who had once been homeless (Mariusz spent four years on the streets of Dublin), but, as a result of their resilience, and the help of Barka, found their way back to society and are now helping people in similar circumstances, particularly those recovering from addictions.

The second part of the conference consisted of two panel discussions. The first panel: “Working with BARKA and other non-profit organisations to overcome homelessness” saw the participation of representatives of Central and Eastern European Consulates, Dublin local authorities, Garda and prison service representatives and local homelessness charities. It was moderated by Aneta Kubas, our colleague from Barka’s Dublin office.

The second panel “Finding new forms of cooperation between public, private and voluntary sector entities, to create a new generation of partnerships and programmes for social and professional integration, and to support vulnerable adults in a post-pandemic landscape in Ireland” – was assisted by representatives of local authorities, BARKA Foundation-Poland, and BARKA Netherlands, This was moderated by our colleague, Andrew Keogh, from Barka UK.

After a welcome lunch break, and a group photo

we listened to compelling Irish and Polish music played on the violin, along with some traditional Polish/English/Irish carols.

This was not the end of the very informative day. We also had a complimentary guided tour of the EPIC- The Irish Emigration Museum. We heard about the Irish around the world: the stories spoke of creativity and strength, resilience and strong character of the Irish people. They offered us a unique way of looking through Irish nation.

After a short break, and more tea/coffee, we had a short internal meeting at the conference room to address and discuss the issues raised during the previous meeting a day before, thus having the second part of the International Barka Network MeetingJ Afterwards, we returned to the hotel.

Tuesday, 6th
In the wake of the previous busy day, we were very much in need of a late, leisurely breakfast! Then, we went to the centre of Dublin again where we had a pre-arranged meeting at the Cappuchin Day Centre For Homeless People in Dublin, with whom Barka Ireland cooperates closely. We were greeted warmly by Bro Kevin Crowley and volunteers running the Day Centre.

They talked about the ethos of the Centre: everyone is welcome, regardless of their country of origin, religion, language or culture. We were very much inspired by what we saw. The Day Centre is open between Monday and Saturday, and provides homeless people with a food service (breakfast, lunch and dinner), food parcels and family services: children’s clothing, nappies, baby food, etc., and basic school essentials, along with clothing, showers and medical services, including opticians and dentists. The latest figures showed that the Centre provides over 700 meals each day and over 1500 food parcels each Wednesday to the homeless and poor of Dublin, including 250 breakfasts 500-650 dinners each day.

We then proceeded to lunch at Oscar’s restaurant to meet a (Garda) policeman called Karol, who patiently answered our questions with regard to working with minority groups in Dublin, and homeless people in particular. We were divided into two groups: group one left for a pre-arranged meeting with management staff and inmates at Wheatfield Prison, on the outskirts of Dublin. The programmes related to the social and vocational rehabilitation of prisoners were discussed in great detail, our colleagues compared views of good practice and the subject of Polish and Irish experiences of prison systems.

The second group, who stayed in the centre of Dublin, visited the National Museum of Ireland and went on a brief tour to see: the Dublin City Council offices, the building where Barka Ireland’s first office used to be, the Merchants Quay Ireland Homeless & Drug Services organisation helping homeless people with addictions and Barka Ireland’s new office.

Our two groups met in the evening at the Admiral restaurant for a farewell dinner, to assess the study visit, and to share our experiences. We had a lovely surprise when sister Anne O’Neil of the Daughters of Charity joined us for dinner! Each of us had an opportunity to say a few words to summarise the study visit. We also had certificates issued for the Leaders and ex-Beneficiaries of Barka on the occasion of attending the study visit in Ireland which were given by Barka Poland. We then proceeded to the hotel for the night. On the following day, all of the groups caught early flights home.

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