Meet, grow, love

Robert O’Sullivan talks to three members of the UCC community - Dr Naomi Masheti, Stevie Grainger, and Vera Stojanovic - to find out how each of them is reaching out in a practical and impactful way, to respond to the needs of the migrant community in Cork.

7 MIN READ
10 Dec 2019
Stevie Grainger with a group of dance students (Photography: Clare Keogh)

DR NAOMI MASHETI

She moved to Cork in 2001 with two children – juggling life as a single mother, living in a new country and attending UCC. As the coordinator of the Cork Migrant Centre, Dr Naomi Masheti brings her academic expertise, as well as practical life experience as a migrant, to the role.

Naomi graduated with an undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology in 2007, completing an MA Degree in Forensic Psychology, the following year. She then did a PhD with the School of Applied Psychology specialising in the psychosocial wellbeing of SubSaharan African migrant children.

While studying in UCC Naomi had to also raise her three children. The fact that she was a migrant, but her kids spent their days with mostly Irish children in school, sparked her interest in reconciling the difference between the two cultures – especially from the point of view of a parent. This led to her future research, as well as her work with the migrant community in Cork.

“Psychology is really a western discipline, so when I first started researching the psychology of migrants, I gradually focused on cross-cultural psychology,” says Naomi.

Naomi Masheti (pictured centre, in red dress) at Cork Migrant Centre

She then switched her focus to psychosocial models of health. Psychosocial work, she explains, is about “building the supports around the individual who is vulnerable” and “building the capacities of the people”.

Naomi noticed that some migrants here – particularly those seeking asylum from war-torn countries and disaster areas – are able to come to terms with their suffering, despite the severity of their experiences when psychosocial supports are mobilised around them.

The opportunity to establish a psychosocial centre at the Cork city-based Nano Nagle Place shifted Naomi’s primary focus to working directly with migrant mothers themselves. They started with coffee mornings, as the women who had come to the centre highlighted their lack of opportunities to form friendships as a key issue.

“At first it was just a small group of mothers. I said to my friend, ‘when we started there was coffee and tissues. Because there are a lot of tears, because people are trying to express themselves,’” she says.

Over time, membership grew from three women to 50+ women living mainly in direct provision centres in Cork. They developed relationships with bodies like UCC and the city council, and throughout these partnerships – and the events that came from them – the “coffee morning women” were there at the forefront.

“At first it was just a small group of mothers. When we started, there was coffee and tissues. Because there were a lot of tears, because people were trying to express themselves” – Dr Naomi Masheti

It’s been over 18 years since Naomi arrived in Ireland, where she was “the only black face in Ballincollig” and it’s now a different place. Though one would hope that with time comes progress, Ireland has not been immune to the global trends of intolerant public opinion and stereotyping towards migrants. Naomi has highlighted the remote placement of direct provision centres as a contributing factor, as it’s “very easy to condemn people you can’t see.”

Her collaborative work with the Cork Migrant Centre and with UCC is even more important in this context. Events like Refugee Week help to reduce the distance between direct provision and the rest of Irish society. And it goes beyond UCC, as the students of today are the professionals of tomorrow.

 

STEVIE GRAINGER

It is well acknowledged that the Cork city-based music producer, journalist and radio DJ, ‘Stevie G’ (aka Steven Grainger), is a Leeside institution, who for over 25 years has injected the local scene with his enthusiasm and passion.

A graduate of UCC, Stevie qualified with a BA in English and History in 1995. He was still a student there when he broke into the music scene, DJing for spells in the Old Bar, before hitting the big time with well-renowned sets at Sir Henry’s, the historic club in South Main Street. Since then he’s been a permanent welcome fixture in Cork’s music scene – DJing, promoting club nights, writing articles for local media outlets, and hosting a series of radio programmes on Cork’s RedFM.

But Stevie G has also added another gig to his portfolio – organising dance classes for young girls in the direct provision centres in Cork, a system which he describes as “awful – a bit like a prison”.

A few years ago the Cork Migrant Centre, in Nano Nagle Place, contacted Stevie to do a workshop with young people living within the direct provision centres. With his background in DJing so well established, he initially ran DJing workshops with the kids, and though it went well, he found it wasn’t clicking with the younger girls in the groups.

He decided to seek out Cork-based dancer and choreographer, Andrea Williams, to help develop a programme for the teenagers. Then Andrea, who was working a fulltime job, in addition to her musical projects, was joined by UCC Dance Club member and medical student, Kate Wang.

Despite all three either working or studying full-time, it didn’t stop them from becoming dedicated to the job at hand: “Kate at one stage busted her leg and I thought, ‘I probably won’t see her for months.’ And she arrives up on a crutch, teaching the girls the following Wednesday,” says Stevie. “It’s been the same with Andrea; she’s been injured a few times and she’s always there – the most dedicated person I’ve ever worked with.”

Their goal was clear for the teenagers: “Andrea and myself just wanted to get their joy across with dancing,” says Stevie. It has worked: the positive effect of the dance sessions over the months has provided a platform for the kids to express themselves – and has also helped them with their self-esteem.

Attendance at the workshops has grown over time, and social media promotion has highlighted the positive impact that people living in direct provision have on the wider community.

The photos and videos of the teens going through the routines – choreographed by Andrea – clearly gets the message across of what a difference such a project makes.

Stevie G is synonymous with the Leeside Indie music scene in particular, because he brought genres from other corners of the world, to introduce them to generations of Corkonians.

His openness to learning about those genres began while he was on a J1 in the United States, all those years ago, when a burgeoning hip-hop scene – less concerned with guns and machismo, led by people like Mary J Blige, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill – started to take centre-stage.

“When I returned to Cork I had the vision of what I wanted to do musically,” he says. Those few months as a student abroad - ignited by his openness and inclusiveness – sparked the direction of Stevie’s music career, influencing so many Corkonians.

And now decades later, he is also influencing migrant kids living in the city.

 

VERA STOJANOVIC

A chance encounter in Cork City centre led to UCC mature student, Vera Stojanovic, setting up a local charity, empowering women seeking asylum in Cork.

"I went into town one day because I had no coffee, and I bumped into a man giving out information outside the Peace Park, about direct provision,” says Vera.

That man was Mike Fitzgibbon, a lecturer in International Development at UCC, who was passing out information for a group campaigning for the rights of asylum seekers.

Vera had been involved in circus skills at that time and thought that organising a workshop or event in one of the centres in Cork might be a good idea.

Vera (pictured front left) with members of Better Together

A newly qualified yoga instructor offered to teach classes to the women in the centres. As time went on, the yoga class turned into a women’s group, with the participants staying behind after classes to talk about their lives and their problems in direct provision.

Established in 2016, Better Together began, Vera says, with those yoga classes. A few months later, there was a circus Easter camp they wanted to send the kids to, so they fundraised and were able to send eight children – a pivotal moment in the setting up of Better Together.

“I didn’t intend to set up an organisation; the need was there for it, so we just kept doing the things the women were asking for,” says Vera. The impact of Better Together on the migrants quickly became apparent. The women spoke about how the yoga helped with their mental health, and one of the kids started doing yoga in the crèche of one of the centres. This led to the crèche coordinators organising yoga with the kids, causing what Vera described as “a lovely kind of chain reaction to what we were doing”.

Originally from Wexford and living in Cork for the past seven years, Vera initially studied Drama and Theatre Studies in UCC in 2011 but stepped away from the course after feeling that university wasn’t the right thing for her at the time.

“I didn’t intend to set up an organisation; the need was there for it, so we just kept doing the things the women were asking for” – Vera Stojanovic

However, as the work with Better Together progressed, she became drawn to returning to university. As a Quercus Active Citizenship Scholar, she now combines her studies with continuing the wonderful work of the organisation she founded.

The “chain reaction” continues: final-year Occupational Therapy students at UCC also got on board with Better Together, through a research project exploring what supports – and barriers – existed for asylum-seeking women who wished to integrate into life in Ireland. With the research highlighting employment as a key issue, the group went on to organise a series of employment skills workshops for over 50 women, in UCC’s library.

Vera also sits on the working group of the UCC University of Sanctuary and the board of management for Cork’s Social Health and Education Project, (SHEP) and she represents BetterTogether on the advocacy and child and family subcommittees of the Cork City of Sanctuary programme.

Her goal is to work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – an impressive leap from that chance encounter while shopping for coffee!

 

Follow this link to find out more about equality, diversity and inclusion at UCC.

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